On Highfield’s criticism that open theism limits God

Several critics of open theism have argued that attributing libertarian freedom to humans reduces God because it implies that God’s will can, for some things, be thwarted. Bruce. Ware makes this claim in his God’s Lesser Glory, p. 226.  Ron Highfield argues that the very notions of divine self-limitation and human libertarian freedom lead to a ‘monstrous scene’, for they imply a ‘little god’ which ‘diminishes the unique deity of God’. See his “The Function of Divine Self-Limitation in Open Theism: Great Wall or Picket Fence?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 45/2 (June 2002): 279-99.

Ron Highfield claims that the affirmations of divine self-limitation and human libertarian freedom leads to a “monstrous scene,” for it implies a “little god” and “diminishes the unique deity of God.”[1] Highfield gives a number of reasons for this claim. One is that God is then bound by the laws of logic. If God cannot create a being with libertarian freedom that God completely controls then God is reduced. That is, God must, according to Highfield, be able to create beings that are genuinely free and not free at the same time. God must be able to completely control free beings such that it is impossible that they ever thwart God’s will.[2] God must be able to do the logically impossible. In his article Highfield makes no reference to my discussion of whether God can do the logically contradictory.[3] Briefly, my position is a little different from most. I do not claim that God can or cannot do the logically impossible. Rather, if God is above the laws of logical thought we can not know it and we certainly cannot use such an idea for theological construction. Though God is not fully comprehensible by us, we have to (de dicto) use the laws of logic in order to discourse about God. To assert that God can make a colorless red car or can save me and damn me simultaneously is nonsensical.

There simply is no absolutely unqualified way to speak of the divine attributes. Take omniscience, for instance. Keith Ward observes that even classical theists place limitations on what God can know. “God can only have propositional, not affective, knowledge… . Omniscience, even for the classical theologian, must be interpreted to mean knowledge of everything that it is logically possible for a being with the divine nature to know. There is no such thing as logically unqualified omniscience. We all place restrictions on divine possibilities at some point…”[4] That is, the classical theist holds that God cannot have changing mental or emotional states and so cannot have affective knowledge of our plight. Thus, even classical theists hold there are types of knowledge which God cannot have. Now, to be fair, they argue that these types of knowledge are inconsequential for God. Yet, Ward’s point holds that there are no totally unqualified understandings of omniscience because we could not make sense of them.

What Highfield fails to realize is that anyone who affirms libertarian freedom, such as Arminians, Molinists, and Highfield’s own tradition, the Stone-Campbell restorationist movement, are guilty of a ‘monstrous scene’ and not just open theists. In fact, anyone who utilizes the freewill defense for the problem of evil would be found guilty of reducing God according to his criterion. In their attempt to gun down open theists they cause a lot of collateral damage. For instance, take his remark that, according to open theists, God “stands forever before a range of mutually exclusively possibilities that he did not choose and cannot control.” [5] Of course, this is a problem for all freewill theological views. Moreover, this is precisely the accusation leveled by Thomists against Molinism. Consequently, proponents of Middle Knowledge such as Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig come under Highfield’s criticisms as well.[6]

Finally, Highfield rips into theologian Jürgen Moltmann as well though Highfield’s language is much more respectful towards Moltmann than it is towards open theists. His criticisms are essentially the same: “Divine Self-Limitation in the Theology of Jürgen Moltmann: a Critical Appraisal” Christian Scholars Review 32.1 (Fall 2002): 49-71.

[1] Highfield, “The Function of Divine Self-Limitation in Open Theism: Great Wall or Picket Fence?” JETS 45/2 (June 2002):297.

[2] Highfield, 288-9.

[3] GWR, 16-19, 23-25, and especially 190-1 and 320-1 notes 95-96.

[4] Ward, “Cosmos and Kenosis,” in John Polkinghorne ed., The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2001), 157.

[5] Highfield, 293.

[6] In fact, virtually, all contemporary analytic philosophers of religion are guilty of affirming a finite deity according to Highfield.

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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