The “Openness” of God: A Reply to William Hasker

Alfred J. Freddoso
University of Notre Dame

Posted here with permission of Christian Scholars Review (fall 1998)

1. Introduction

Emulating Bill Hasker, I will begin with a few autobiographical remarks. Numbered among the half-dozen or so writers whom I have been most influenced by spiritually as well as intellectually are St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas. Having pondered at length the philosophical doctrines of God fashioned by these two brilliant and holy men, I find it difficult to entertain the idea that we moderns will be better positioned philosophically to make progress in our understanding of the divine nature once we set aside their principal metaphysical claims. Yet the authors of The Openness of God [1] urge me not only to entertain this idea but to embrace it wholeheartedly. Again, having tasted of the spiritual riches contained in the extensive Biblical commentaries of St. Augustine and St. Thomas, I find it difficult to believe that we moderns will be better positioned theologically to make progress in our understanding of the Scriptural portrayal of God once we recognize that these commentaries and others like them are tainted with philosophical elements contrary to the Christian Faith. Yet this is what the authors of The Openness of God ask me to believe.

What’s more, even though Hasker and the others impugn many of the attributes that enter into the traditional conception of God–to wit, simplicity, immutability, impassibility, eternality, total sovereignty, comprehensive knowledge of the future, particular providence [2] –the book does not contain (and, as far as I can tell, does not pretend to contain) any new arguments against these attributes. Instead, drawing from a wide array of extant sources, including their own previous work, the authors try to undermine the traditional conception of God by alluding to, and sometimes giving brief renditions of, a number of familiar objections to the attributes in question. Since I have never been convinced by these objections taken one by one, I am pretty much unmoved by their all being piled on top of one another within a single volume.

So despite the laudable intention of the authors to help us improve our understanding of God, I must confess to certain misgivings about their project. Still, I have greatly benefitted from the exercise of trying to turn my visceral reaction to this provocative book into an articulate response to the challenge it lays down. My hope is that others, the authors among them, might derive some corresponding benefit from the results of that exercise.

2. The book as a whole: style and intended audience

Though I will concentrate mainly on Hasker’s own chapter, entitled “A Philosophical Perspective,” I want to begin with a comment about the style and intended audience of the book as a whole, since the book’s genre renders certain types of criticisms inappropriate.

As I understand it, The Openness of God is not meant to be a scholarly treatise on the concept of God; nor is it aimed exclusively or even primarily at an academic audience. Instead, it reads more like a thoughtful exhortation–a meditative manifesto, if you will–that briefly spells out the main contours of the ‘open’ conception of God and provides an outline of the sort of historical, philosophical, and theological considerations that can be mustered in its defense. The book’s principal aim, it appears, is to win the initial sympathy of educated Christians and to lure the scholars among us into adopting as our own the research program it recommends.

If this assessment is correct, it seems unbecoming to take the authors to task for their lack of thoroughness. So, for instance, critics should not fuss about the fact that the chapter entitled “Historical Considerations” dispatches with Calvin in a little over two pages, Luther in a little over one page, and Thomas Aquinas in a little under one page. Nor should they linger over the fact that the authors have not given a suitably exhaustive reply to the problem of prophecy, or over the fact that Hasker has still not made clear exactly why the ‘open’ God, who is after all very knowledgeable about human behavior as well as very powerful, fares better than the “self-contained God of the classical tradition” (pp. 126-127) when it comes to reconciling moral atrocities with divine providence. [3] Again, it would be out of place to fret over the rhetorical excesses the authors indulge in.

How, then, should one reply? In broad strokes, to be sure. But where should the focus be? There are many inviting issues, but I will limit myself to two. First, I will raise some questions about Hasker’s contention that we contemporary Christian thinkers have a philosophical advantage over our classical predecessors when it comes to fashioning an accurate conception of God. Second, taking my cue from Douglas Kelly’s contribution to the Christianity Today symposium on the book, [4] and with St. Thomas as my guide, I will argue that the authors of The Openness of God owe us a philosophically rigorous account of God’s transcendence.

3. Their metaphysical predispositions versus ours

How could the Fathers of the Church and other classical Christian thinkers have gone so wrong with regard to the concept of God? And how is it that the authors of The Openness of God have managed to succeed where their classical predecessors, many saints among them, failed? We can glean Hasker’s reply from various remarks he makes in his own chapter of the book. Let’s begin with the following passage:

“Without a doubt a very large number of philosophical issues are involved in the difference between the divine openness view and the classical conception of God–far too many to discuss in a single chapter. My task is made somewhat easier, however, by the fact that many of the inclinations and preconceptions with which we today approach these issues are decidedly different from those which prevailed when the theological tradition was being formed. To be sure, the fact that a view was once widely held and has now been generally abandoned is not a decisive reason to reject it; truths can be forgotten and then rediscovered. But when we are assessing the merits of views supported by a long tradition, it is surely appropriate to consider the ways in which the assumptions that influenced the shaping of the tradition differ from our own” (p. 127).

Hasker then notes the pervasive influence of neo-Platonism on many classical Christian thinkers, an influence embodied (as he sees it) in their nearly unanimous bias in favor of the doctrines of divine simplicity, eternality, immutability, and impassibility. By contrast, our own inclinations carry us moderns in just the opposite direction. Take, for instance, the specific case of immutability:

“In the philosophical lineage stretching from Parmenides to Plato to Plotinus, there is a strong metaphysical and valuational preference for permanence over change …. And this bias against change has been powerfully influential in classical theology, leading to the insistence on an excessively strong doctrine of divine immutability …. For us moderns, this preference for permanence over change is scarcely compelling. Indeed, it is arguable that in our intellectual life as well as in our general culture the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, so that if anything at all remains constant for a while our response is one of boredom and impatience. Be that as it may, the extreme valuational preference for immutability has little hold on our thinking, and the appeal of theological doctrines based on this valuation is weakened accordingly” (p. 129).

The idea, broadly stated, is this: Christian thinkers toil within concrete cultural and intellectual contexts, and these contexts instill in them cognitive predispositions which, though defeasible, nonetheless serve as tacit measures of plausibility. Since the contexts within which we contemporary philosophers operate are quite different from those within which classical Christian thinkers operated, it is not surprising that our cognitive predispositions should diverge substantially from theirs. More specifically, given the striking contrast in style and content between the analytic metaphysical tradition in which many of us have been trained and the Greek metaphysical traditions into which classical Christian thinkers were initiated, our metaphysical predispositions can be expected to differ dramatically from theirs.

When we turn to the task of fashioning a Christian conception of God from the resources afforded us by reason and revelation, this difference turns out to be especially crucial. For, as Hasker sees it, in carrying out this task, orthodox Christian thinkers are all engaged in so-called ‘perfect being theology’, which, he tells us, “is operative, both explicitly and implicitly, at many, many points in the theological tradition” (p. 131). That is, we begin from the presupposition that God is an absolutely perfect being–a presupposition Hasker willingly embraces–and then we proceed to determine just which attributes are to count as divine perfections. Some attributes are relatively uncontroversial, but the traditional “metaphysical” attributes mentioned above are not among them. As Hasker puts it, “I do not think it should be taken as obvious, without long and thoughtful consideration, that it is ‘better’ for God to be temporal or timeless, mutable or immutable, passible or impassible” (p. 132). And it is precisely with regard to these abstract and esoteric attributes that the above-noted difference in metaphysical predispositions has its greatest impact.

I will return below to the claim that classical Christian thinkers were all engaged in ‘perfect being theology’; let us assume for now that they were so engaged. According to Hasker, their judgments about what constitutes perfection were unduly influenced by cognitive predispositions instilled by the now defunct neo-Platonic metaphysical tradition; we, on the other hand, are in a position to correct their mistakes and thus to rescue the Biblical portrayal of God from an outmoded metaphysics that forces us to interpret an excessively large part of that portrayal as metaphorical rather than literal. In short, having been freed from classical metaphysical prejudices, we can–and should–be true to our own metaphysical predispositions:

“It is in the end out of the question for anyone to ‘prove’ that a particular conception of God is the correct one. Rather, one simply finds that a particular way of understanding the things of God makes the most sense, and provides the greatest illumination, in the overall context of one’s thinking and living. And so we offer a challenge to the reader, to ‘try and see’ whether he or she cannot find a rich and satisfying understanding of Scripture, of the Christian faith generally and of our life in Christ, seen through the lens of the openness of God” (p. 154).

Several questions come immediately to mind, but I will raise just two of them. First, and most obviously, how have our metaphysical predispositions been formed? It has been fewer than four decades since analytic metaphysics re-emerged from the shadow of positivism and ordinary language philosophy, two of the most virulently anti-metaphysical movements in the history of philosophy. Even counting the earlier achievements of the likes of Frege and Russell, analytic metaphysics is thus in its embryonic stage, judged by the standard of the two thousand year tradition that ran from Plato to Suarez and into early modern philosophy. Moreover, we have still not recovered fully from the disdain for the history of metaphysics that marked graduate training in philosophy during the middle decades of this century. The result is that very few of us analytic metaphysicians received in graduate school any deep or systematic introduction to the history of our own discipline, especially the history of ancient and medieval metaphysics. And the resulting historical blindness helps explain why in many cases we have become “locked in” to ways of formulating metaphysical problems and of defining possible solutions to those problems that we are well-nigh incapable of recognizing as contingent and, I would add, highly questionable.

Here are some examples. Nearly all analytic treatments of causality take it for granted that events, rather than stable entities, are the relata of the basic causal relation. Again, nearly all analytic treatments of action take it for granted that if the concepts action, power, and agent causality have any application at all, they are applicable only in the case of free and rational beings. Yet only a handful of pre-Humean philosophers, most notably the occasionalists, would have had even the slightest inclination to accept either of these assumptions. Again, analytic philosophers of mind almost unanimously assume that Cartesian dualism is the only remotely plausible non-materialistic solution to the mind-body problem; and given the historically conditioned patterns of thought with which we have become comfortable, even the few of us who have heard of the Aristotelian alternative are as likely as not to pronounce it unintelligible.

This historical illiteracy is especially disheartening in analytic philosophy of religion, where ignorance of, or spotty acquaintance with, medieval metaphysics effectively cuts us off from the most comprehensive and penetrating reflection on the Christian Faith that has occurred in the history of the Church. And here, too, even those of us, myself included, who do, as it were, “dip into” the history of philosophical theology very often succumb to the temptation to force classical concepts and theories into the straitjacket of currently fashionable modes of thinking.

The most striking example is the contemporary literature on divine simplicity. Hasker tells us that “a strong majority of Christian philosophers” (p. 127) have abandoned the doctrine of divine simplicity; I submit that a “strong majority” of contemporary Christian philosophers do not so much as understand the doctrine of divine simplicity or the metaphysical background from which it emerged. In an important recent paper Nicholas Wolterstorff traces the futility of the contemporary discussion of simplicity to a largely unnoticed difference between styles of ontology–more specifically, between what he calls the “constituent ontology” characteristic of medieval metaphysicians and the “relation ontology” that marks contemporary analytic metaphysics. [5] And while Wolterstorff himself is no friend of either constituent ontology or the doctrine of God that historically developed from it, he nonetheless recognizes that a convincing case for rejecting the medieval tradition in philosophical theology can be made only from within by philosophers who understand deeply what they are rejecting. [6]

From these considerations I draw two conclusions. First, without the sort of systematic study that we are not generally trained for either linguistically or philosophically, we contemporary Christian philosophers are not in a position even to understand, much less to criticize intelligently, most of the work of those classical metaphysicians whom Hasker takes to task. For in order to grasp what these authors are saying, we must immerse ourselves in their works and, at least initially, humbly submit ourselves to their tutleage; but this is a project that most of us have neither the expertise nor the time nor the inclination to undertake. Second, given the realities of our peculiar historical situation, we have no good reason to believe that, with respect to the conception of God, the metaphysical predispositions engendered by contemporary culture and philosophical training are more reliable than those of the classical Christian thinkers.

The second question I wish to raise concerns the advice that we “try and see” whether the ‘open’ conception of God works for us. Hasker’s discussion of the parable of the Prodigal Son in the present paper is meant as a test case. Ask yourself: “Would the parable be as gripping if we imagined the father to be immutable and impassible, or to have comprehensive knowledge of the future?” I think we can agree that it would not be as gripping. But exactly why not? Well, to begin with, it is no perfection for a human father to be immovable and impassible concerning the fate of his own children–just the opposite, in fact. If the father in the parable were not anxious and yet hopeful, he wouldn’t be a very good father. Nor is it a human perfection to be omniscient, even though we can at least recognize omniscience as the limiting case of something that is a genuine human perfection.

But what conclusion should we draw from this? Hasker invites us to conclude that if the traditional conception of God is correct, then the parable of the Prodigal Son is at least in part misleading, since it portrays the father as having certain traits which are of central importance to the story and yet which a divine being could not possibly have. And, indeed, if all we knew about God were what philosophers ignorant of Christian revelation have been able to tell us, it would be very hard to recognize God in the father of the parable; to put it another way, it would be very hard to swallow the idea that if God were somehow to become human, he would be anything like the father of the parable (see 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). (Of course, if all we knew about God were what he had revealed of himself to Moses and the prophets, we would be astonished by the very suggestion that the transcendent bearer of the ineffable name of Exodus 3 might somehow become human–once again, see 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.)

Yet as Christians, illumined by divine revelation concerning the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation, we have a pretty good idea of what our transcendent God would be like as a human being–namely, exactly like Jesus Christ, who dined with public sinners, thus exciting the murmurs that prompted the parable of the Prodigal Son. According to the traditional Christian understanding of God, it is precisely in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ that the impassible, immutable, eternal God becomes passible, mutable, and time-bound. We Christians don’t need to invent an ‘open’ conception of the divine nature in order to marvel at the “folly” of a risk-taking, passible God; all we need to do is to contemplate Christ crucified. [7]

Perhaps Hasker will retort that if we understand the divine nature in the traditional way, then it is impossible that any person should be both divine and human. But, as far as I can tell, the doctrine of the Incarnation would seem no less a folly to unbelieving metaphysicians if the ‘open’ conception of the divine nature were substituted for the traditional conception. After all, even according to the ‘open’ conception, God is an omnipotent and omniscient Creator, an immaterial, imperfectible, and transcendent Being without beginning or end. What’s more, the strategies available to Hasker and the others for countering the objection that no being can be both God (conceived of as ‘open’) and man will be just those strategies that classical Christian thinkers have employed to fend off the parallel objection to the thesis that Jesus Christ is both God (conceived of in the traditional way) and man. In a nutshell, as long as we stop short of reducing the divine nature to a merely human nature, the familiar metaphysical objections to the doctrine of the Incarnation will continue to arise, and the methods for dealing with those objections will continue to be the same.

So much for our alleged philosophical advantage.

4. Thomas Aquinas and divine transcendence

I want to close with a few remarks about the method by which St. Thomas arrives at his philosophical conception of the divine nature–remarks prompted both by Hasker’s claim that the classical theologians were engaged in ‘perfect being theology’ and by Douglas Kelly’s charge that the authors of The Openness of God “have failed to think through the profound implications of the difference between created being and uncreated being.” [8]

St. Thomas’s reflections on the divine nature can be divided into three phases: (1) the proof of the existence of a First Efficient Cause, i.e., a being which acts and is a cause of other things but is not itself caused or acted upon; [9] (2) the via remotionis, in which the First Cause is divided off from all other entities by denying of it various intrinisic modes of being and composition characteristic of created entities; and (3) the via affirmationis, in which positive perfections are attributed to the First Cause. (This triadic structure is clearly evident in Summa Contra Gentiles I, chaps. 10-102, but can also be discerned in Summa Theologiae I, qq. 2-26.)

Significantly, the thesis that the First Cause is a perfect being is the conclusion of Phase 2 rather than an initial assumption. It is only in Phase 3–the via affirmationis–that we see anything resembling ‘perfect being theology’. Yet several of the attributes impugned by Hasker–to wit, eternality, immutability, impassibility, and simplicity–are ‘negative’ attributes argued for in Phase 2, that is, before ‘perfect being theology’ kicks in. So, at least in the case of St. Thomas, Hasker’s remarks about the classical predispositions in favor of these four attributes are beside the point. St. Thomas is not judging on the basis of cognitive predispositions that these attributes, in contradistinction to their opposites, bespeak perfection. Rather, he is arguing–and the arguments are many and diverse–that these attributes follow from the concept First Efficient Cause (or, in the end, Creator), under which God’s existence was proved in Phase 1.

Let me expound on this just a bit. St. Thomas claims, pace St. Anselm, that in natural theology we do not begin with a direct positive (or ‘quidditative’) concept of God–that is, a concept which would allow us to situate the divine nature within a taxonomy of genera and species and thus to initiate a systematic inquiry into its positive properties. Instead, we are forced to reason discursively from certain evident features of the sensible world to the existence of a First Efficient Cause of those features, and then to argue from the descriptive concept First Efficient Cause to the conclusion that the being whose existence has been proved must be radically different intriniscally from the ordinary sensible entities that we do have direct positive concepts of. The upshot of this via remotionis is that the First Cause is “perfect in every way”. [10] It is only afterwards–in Phase 3–that we try to isolate a set of pure perfections which, if abstracted from the restrictive conditions under which they occur in creatures, can be attributed literally, albeit analogically, to the Creator.

In effect, then, the via remotionis constitutes an inquiry into the difference between Creator and creature. And within St. Thomas’s system a being capable of creating ex nihilo is ultimately characterized in two basic and, as I have argued elsewhere, [11] complementary ways, one stemming from the Aristotelian tradition (Pure Actuality) and the other stemming from the Platonic tradition (Unparticipated Being). Within their respective traditions, these are limiting notions which strain our cognitive and imaginative resources but which for that very reason provide us with a powerful characterization of the ontological abyss that divides the transcendent Creator of all things from the entities he creates. In the Thomistic system, then, there is no doubt about the utter “otherness,” incomprehensibility, and ineffability of the divine nature.

By contrast, even though the authors of The Openness of God affirm God’s transcendence, they have not as yet provided any correspondingly forceful metaphysical account of that transcendence. Unlike St. Thomas, they have given us no principled explanation of what sort of being is capable of creating ex nihilo, or of how such a being differs in its inner nature from created beings.

Why is this a serious omission? As indicated above, a metaphysical conception of the divine nature helps us divide the Scriptural descriptions of God into the literal and the metaphorical. The authors of The Openness of God object to the division made on the basis of the traditional conception of God; in particular, they claim that many Scriptural descriptions of God are unjustifiably classified as metaphorical by appeal to the negative properties (immutability, eternality, impassibility, simplicity) constitutive of the classical notion of divine transcendence. However, it is not at all clear on what basis the authors are making their own division into the literal and the metaphorical. Why, for instance, do they cling to the idea that God is immaterial and thereby relegate a whole host of Scriptural descriptions of God to the realm of the metaphorical, given that immateriality is just another one of those ‘Hellenistic’ divine attributes that has little appeal for the modern mind? The authors insist, after all, that God has genuine emotions, and many of us who reject Cartesian dualism think that in the case of human beings certain bodily changes are essential to the having of emotions properly so-called. What makes the authors think that this is not true in the case of God as well? One might even perversely suggest that the “whole emotional content” of the parable of the Prodigal Son is “profoundly altered” if we imagine that the father, because he has no body, is unable literally to embrace his son or to share the fatted calf with him.

What standard, then, are Hasker and the others invoking in the case of immateriality? More generally, what full-fledged alternative to the traditional account of transcendence can they offer us? I suggest that they put the formulation of such an account at or near the top of their agenda as they continue to develop their research program.

[1] The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God, by Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994). In what follows all page references are to this book.

[2] It is perhaps worthwhile to note in passing that, within my own Catholic tradition, the attributes impugned in the Openness of God have been affirmed not only by the most eminent theologians but also by the Church herself. The two most important councils in this regard are Lateran IV (1215) and Vatican I (1869-70), though one finds explicit mention of all these attributes in official ecclesiastical documents dating from the first few centuries of the history of the Church. For instance, eternality is affirmed in the ancient creed Quicumque, simplicity and immutability (and, by implication, impassibility) are affirmed by Pope St. Leo the Great in letters that date from the middle of the fifth century.

[3]Accordingly, I will not repeat here my objections to the account of God’s knowledge and providence that is contained in Hasker’s God, Time and Knowledge (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989). See my review of this book in Faith and Philosophy 8 (1993): 99-107.

[4]Christianity Today, January 9, 1995, 30-34.

[5] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Divine Simplicity,” Philosophical Perspectives 5 (1991): 531-552.

[6]On a personal note, I myself have over the years come to believe rather firmly in the superiority of constituent ontology to relation ontology. For interested beginners in this area, I have made available on the World Wide Web (http:\ a number of class handouts for courses dealing with scholastic philosophy, including a brief introduction to scholastic ontology.

[7]Richard Rice tries to turn this argument on its head by claiming, in effect, that Jesus could not be passible as a human being unless the divine nature were antecedently passible (see pp. 45-46). But his main argument for this claim is summed up in the contention that “the cross is nothing less than the suffering of God.” Since any alert Christian proponent of the traditional conception of God will accept this premise while denying the conclusion that the divine nature is passible, it seems that at least one further premise is needed.

[8]“Afraid of Infinitude,” Christianity Today, January 9, 1995, 32.

[9]Strictly speaking, what the argument shows, if successful, is that each being and each change is such that it has a First Efficient Cause. It is only later, in Phase 3, that St. Thomas argues that there is just a single First Efficient Cause of all beings and changes. However, I will ignore this complication in what follows.

[10]Summa Contra Gentiles I, chap. 28.

[11]“God’s General Concurrence with Secondary Causes: Why Conservation is Not Enough,” Philosophical Perspectives 5 (1991): 553-585, esp. 561-563.

Alfred Freddoso

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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