Response to papers on the Stone-Campbell Movement and Open Theism

Draft version: not for citation or quotation. For published version see “Response to the Stone Campbell Movement and Open Theism,” in Evangelicalism and the Stone-Campbell Movement, Vol. 2, ed. William Baker (Abilene Christian University Press, 2006), 86-96

Response to Duane Warden’s paper

For the most part I found his presentation of open theism accurate though I would do a bit of tweaking here and there.  I especially liked the tone of the paper, it evinces a willingness to dialogue.

One question that immediately came to my mind is: why have Stone-Campbell adherents embraced exhaustive definite foreknowledge?  What purpose does the doctrine serve in Stone-Campbell thought? That is, doctrines are supposed to accomplish tasks—to be useful. Of what use is foreknowledge? T. W. Brents, a restorationist, wrote The Gospel Plan of Salvation (1874) which was widely read into the Nineteenth-Century by members of the Stone-Campbell movement. Brents’ book was the closest thing to a systematic theology used by Stone-Campbell students for many decades. In it he has an entire chapter on foreknowledge and he rejects exhaustive definite foreknowledge as unbiblical. He cites many of the same biblical passages used by proponents of open theism and raises many of the same arguments.

Now, I would like to respond to some legitimate questions he raises. First, he asks whether we dismiss passages that call our model into question. Proponents of open theism have discussed texts such as Romans 8:29-30, 9-11; Eph 1:4 and other so-called deterministic texts. Admittedly, we can do more. However, we don’t see the need to rehearse all the explanations developed by Arminian scholars over the years if we agree with them. Why should I need to give an explanation of John 6 if Arminians have already dealt with it?

Second, regarding the texts on Cyrus and Judas, open theists are not in agreement. Boyd tends to agree with the explanations given by L. D. McCabe, a Nineteenth-Century Methodist who wrote two lengthy volumes in favor of open theism. In this view, God occasionally overrides human freedom in order to carry out his plans. Though I think this is possible, I try to explain the texts in such a way that God did not need to override human freedom. I believe Cyrus was a title rather than a person in this biblical text and the prediction about Judas was conditional—and he did not have to do it. It was an implicit warning just as Jonah’s prediction about Nineveh, though stated unconditionally, was implicitly conditional.

Third, are we overly individualistic? Perhaps we reflect our evangelicalism here in that our efforts to

apply the

model have concentrated on issues surrounding individual piety. Open theists need to apply the

model to areas such as social ethics and ecology.

Fourth, he wonders if we have difficulty accounting for the universality of human sin. If we do, then would not proponents of the Stone-Campbell movement have even more problems? Open theist accounts of sin can range from Augustinian to Wesleyan to Eastern Orthodox views. Open theism does not require a particular understanding of this issue. After all, there are many Reformed theologians who affirm both divine temporality and the dynamic omniscience view.

Finally, he wonders if there will be sin in heaven if humans continue to

have libertarian freedom. I have addressed this question at length elsewhere.[2] Here, I will simply say that this is an issue for all proponents of libertarian freedom, including Arminians and Eastern Orthodox, not just open theists. My short answer is that in heaven we may voluntarily ask God to confirm our characters in such a way that we forever freely choose the good.

In his conclusion he said any model of God will have difficulties. I agree. Sometimes theological positions are decided by which problems you would rather live with.

Response to Robert Kurka’s paper

I appreciate the need for me to clarify and even correct my views on various topics. However, I am disappointed that Kurka’s paper contains many misstatements of my position and space does not permit me to address all of them.

To begin, he claims that I present the debate in terms of a polarity between sovereignty and love. No, the question is which view of sovereignty is to be affirmed since there is more than one view (just as there is more than one view on the millennium, baptism, election, etc.). I affirm that God sovereignly decided not to tightly control everything we do. This is called general sovereignty and it is incompatible with what is called specific sovereignty (God tightly controls everything we do). If Kurka believes that the Calvinist view (specific sovereignty) is the only legitimate view of sovereignty then I simply disagree. Later on he calls my view “limited sovereignty.” Since general sovereignty has been a standard Arminian view affirmed by people such as Jack Cottrell, Kurka must conclude that Cottrell and many other Arminians affirm limited sovereignty. I seriously doubt, however, that he would heap this sort of rhetoric on someone like Cottrell.

On a couple of occasions he states my position as “limited foreknowledge.” Open theists do not believe God’s foreknowledge is “limited” in any respect. The debate centers on the nature of the future: does “the future” actually already exist in some way? Open theists affirm a widely accepted position known as the dynamic theory of time. According to this view, the future does not now exist—it is not a reality—so there is literally no “thing” (fact of the matter) to be known. God would be limited if there were facts available to be known and God was prevented from knowing them. This also gets into complex philosophical questions regarding the nature of truth and whether statements about future contingent events are true now.

Third, he accuses me of historical selectivity. “Socianism provides the most demonstrable parallel to open theism in church history even to the most basic arguments.” Kurka correctly notes that Socinians denied the deity of Jesus, the atonement, the trinity and the like. Since open theists affirm all of these why should we be labeled Socinians? After all, the very same accusation that Kurka makes was made against Arminius himself. A letter written in Arminius’ day says that with incredible zeal “some persons accuse this man of schism and others of heresy some charge him with the crime of Pelagianism and others brand him with the black mark of Socinianism.”[8] Also, the dynamic omniscience view has been affirmed by a number of orthodox Christians throughout history. Calcidius, a late Fourth-Century Christian writer propounded it, and the Nineteenth-Century witnessed an explosion in the number of proponents including T. W. Brents (a leader in the Stone-Campbell movement), many Methodists and Isaac Dorner. The actual historical forerunner for open theism is L. D. McCabe who wrote two lengthy volumes defending it[9]

Next he claims I was “stacking the deck” in my three criteria for a doctrine of providence. This is curious since these criteria are widely accepted by Arminians. After all, Arminians believe God is involved with us in the flow of history. Kurka is simply mistaken to think that these three criteria rule out the “traditional Arminian understanding of foreknowledge.” My arguments against the simple foreknowledge view are independent of these criteria.

I thank Kurka for stating some of the positive elements that the discussion of open theism has raised. Also, I agree with him that openness is not the “only option” to Calvinism. In my book, I said that open theism is just one form of what may be called freewill theism or relational theology which has been a major position throughout church history. Though I believe that openness is the best form or relational theism, I see other relational theists as allies and dialogue partners.

He writes: “Risk is a creaturely concept not a divine one.” If this means that it is impossible for God to take risks then Kurka is quite out of the Arminian mainstream. Freewill theists from C. S. Lewis to Phillip Yancey state that God took a risk in creating beings with libertarian freedom. The freewill defense to the problem of evil is predicated upon divine risk taking. That is, God could not create us with free will and also guarantee that we would never commit a moral evil. In the same vein, Arminianism has maintained that God wants to save every single individual but, unfortunately, God takes the risk that some will refuse divine grace. Both of these situations entail that God takes risks in some areas. Though the term “risk” may not have been used much in theology, the concept of divine risk taking is certainly there.

Next, he accuses me of a “hyperliteralism.” However, I specifically said that biblical language about God is comprised of conceptual metaphors.[10] He says we must think theomorphically rather than strictly anthropomorphically.  I made this very point on page twenty-one of my book where I quoted Abraham Joshua Heschel. “God’s concern for justice and love is not an anthropomorphism; rather, our concern for justice and love is a theomorphism.” In my view, biblical statements about “God does not change” and “God changes” are metaphors and can both be true depending on what is meant by “change” in the various texts. He accuses me of taking the divine change of mind texts in a “wooden” manner reminiscent of fundamentalists and Mormons. Did Kurka read my discussion of the metaphorical nature of all scripture? In particular, on page seventy-two where, after criticizing those who see contradictions between God not changing and God changing, I say, “A better approach for handling the divine repentance texts is to acknowledge that they are metaphorical in nature. Metaphors do not provide us with an exact correspondence to reality but they do provide a way of understanding reality.” So, he is quite incorrect that my views “logically lead” to fundamentalism or Mormonism.

Kurka thinks that I have broken an axiom of biblical interpretation by subordinating the clear teachings on divine immutability to the unclear teachings of divine mutability. However, I don’t believe either the immutability or mutability texts have to be subordinated to the other for I see no tension between them.[11] My position is that the divine nature does not change but God can change in certain respects. Kurka, himself says that “God is perfectly personal, so that if He changes His mind (Jon. 3:10), He is not changing His essential nature and purpose.” Amen! This is precisely my view.

He says Sanders engages in “Some very speculative exegesis.” His example is Genesis 22:12 where God says “now I know that you fear me.” What is my speculative exegesis? That God learned something about Abraham. Well, how can it be speculative when that is what the text says? We may have good reasons to claim that the text does not mean what it says but Kurka does not provide any such reasons. Would not most people in the Stone-Campbell movement accept the biblical texts as reality depicting unless we have good reason not to do so? In line with this he says the feelings I attribute to God resemble a “finite God.” The biblical writers portray God as having feelings such as joy, anger, and even inner turmoil over what to do with his people (Hosea 11:8). I wonder if Kurka would say the feelings that the biblical writers attribute to God resemble a finite God? I find it highly ironic that someone in the Stone-Campbell tradition hurls insults at me for taking the biblical portrayal of God seriously.

He says that my understanding of omnipotence “could easily be seen in a description of process theology’s aims.” Really? How could a process theologian agree that God sovereignly decided to make some of his decisions contingent? The God of process theology cannot do that because all of God’s actions are contingent—God cannot act unilaterally in process thought. For process theology it was not God’s sovereign decision that humans be given libertarian rather than compatibilistic freedom. In process theology God cannot determine anything in the creation. This pattern in Kurka’s paper, of using loaded language and attempting to tar us with guilt by associating us with process theologians and Socinians, is quite disappointing.

At the end of his paper Kurka gives his own proposal but I find no fundamental difference between his proposal and mine. He says my portrait is of an emotionally unpredictable God. If he thinks I believe God is overwhelmed by emotions as we are apt to be, then he is mistaken. I have an entire chapter where I discuss God’s love, wisdom and faithfulness. I simply do not recognize my view in Kurka’s accusations.

Also, regarding his proposal, he describes how God uses his knowledge to make decisions. He uses an illustration of a scientist making predictions based on knowledge of the past and then he claims that this is the “traditional Arminian perspective.” It is not. Arminians affirm a view known as simple foreknowledge whereby God just “previsions” everything that will ever happen. Proponents of simple foreknowledge do not believe God prognosticates based on his exhaustive knowledge of past and present—that is the God of open theism. Again, I am left wondering where is the difference between us since each of the five points in his proposal are affirmed in my work.

Response to Cottrell’s God and Time

I enjoyed working through this thought-provoking paper. Over the years I have learned much from Cottrell’s work so I am delighted to be able to respond to this paper.

He defines time as the “relation between events may be described in terms of before and after, or earlier than and later than.  It involves a sequence or succession of moments which may be described as past and future in relation to a present or now.” This is a psychological rather than a metric definition of time. That is, it addresses the experience of consciousness that personal beings experience. God can experience sequence without any sort of creation. Measurable (metric) time requires a creation with distance between objects. Cottrell is correct that psychological time, as an attribute of God, does not make God subject to time anymore than God’s eternal knowledge of mathematical truths makes God subject to math.

Also, his exposition and critique of divine timelessness is on the money. Divine timelessness is incompatible with core doctrines of Arminian theology: conditional election, resistible grace and that our prayers can affect God. For example, a timeless being cannot respond to creatures so election must be irresistible and it is impossible for a timeless being to be affected by our prayers. These considerations led the influential Methodist theologian, John Miley, to reject timelessness and he said that exhaustive definite foreknowledge would also need to be rejected if it was shown to be incompatible with God’s interacting with us.[12]

Cottrell says God transcends created time both quantitatively and qualitatively. He transcends it quantitatively in the sense that God had no beginning and will have no end. I agree with this. But in what way does God qualitatively transcend metric time? What is meant by God “outside of our time?” He writes: “Though the created now corresponds to the divine now, so that God’s history coincides with our world’s history, it is nevertheless true that God is still outside of created time.” How can God’s time correspond to our time if God qualitatively transcends our time? If God is not in the flow of created time in what possible sense could his history coincide with created history? He says, “Our time is not his time, yet it is not unlike his time.” Here, I am left wondering in what ways it is similar and in what ways it is different.

Next, he claims that divine metatemporality allows God to prevision all of the future. “Herein lies the basis for God’s comprehensive foreknowledge.” But how does it accomplish this? I see no explanation.

In his section, “Foreknowledge and the Metatemporal God.” I was struck by several statements. For instance, he says that God can think new thoughts. In the scholarly realm, this is certainly not a “traditional” way of thinking about divine omniscience. This is a major break with traditional conceptions of omniscience. However, I think it is a break in the right direction. But I wonder if God’s ability to think new thoughts comes to an end for Cottrell after God decides to create. Once God makes the decision to create this type of world, then God acquires the knowledge of all that creatures will do in the future and all the actions that God will do in the future. Hence, it seems God’s ability to think new thoughts is limited to the time prior to creation. Now that God knows all that will obtain in the future, it would seem impossible for God to ever again think a new thought.

Yet, it seems that Cottrell believes God can continue to formulate new decisions. He writes: “It also means that at no point is God’s knowledge absolutely all-inclusive, since he at no point knows all of his own future decisions, including the realities that will actually spring therefrom.  This in effect places a limit on God’s foreknowledge, since I cannot affirm that ‘God has complete and infallible knowledge of the future.’” For Cottrell, God does not know all of his own future actions. This view is very similar to the dynamic omniscience view affirmed by open theists.

Naturally, I resonated with Cottrell’s affirmation of divine risk-taking. He affirms that a God with simple foreknowledge is no less a risk taker than the God of open theism.  However, Cottrell says he disagrees with me concerning “the extent of this risk” because the risk is only prior to creation not once God acquires exhaustive definite foreknowledge. Yet, I fail to see how this helps. Cottrell says that he affirms what I call “incremental simple foreknowledge” (ISF). The way ISF works is that God gains his knowledge of what both God and creatures will do in the future incrementally. The reason this is necessary is that Cottrell seems to acknowledge that it is logically impossible for God to make an event not occur that God knows with certainty will occur. For example, once God knows for certain (previsions) Israel’s idolatry with the golden calf, God cannot bring it about that they do not commit this act of idolatry. Hence, God works his way through our future seeing what we will do and then deciding what action God will take. Then God looks a bit further ahead to see what we will do and then decides what action God will take. Elsewhere, I have explained at length that for ISF divine providence works out in precisely the same way that a God with dynamic omniscience (open theism) works it out.[14]

The only difference is that the God of openness is working it out in time as we go along whereas Cottrell’s metatemporal God worked it out prior to the final act of creation. For instance, say that God would like for Billy Bob to give assistance to Sue. For open theists, God seeks to get Billy Bob motivated to do so but God does not know whether his efforts have been successful until after the time of Sue’s need. For Cottrell’s metatemporal God, God runs the tape of the future prior to creation and sees Sue in need so he decides to encourage Billy Bob to help. Then God runs the tape forward to see whether his efforts were successful. If Billy Bob did not help Sue at the necessary time, then once God knows that Sue did not receive the help he wanted her to have, God cannot “go back” and find someone else to meet that need. Once God knows what will actually happen (not what might happen), that Sue does not, in fact, get the help she needed God cannot change this since that would render his foreknowledge incorrect. God knows prior to creation that Sue will not get the help she needed but God cannot do anything about it. So, I fail to see what difference this makes to the extent of risk God takes.

Cottrell says, “Contrary to openness theology, it is not God’s knowledge but our finite human understanding that is limited.” In response, let me voice my agreement that our knowledge of God is always a finite understanding. None of us claims to have God all figured out. However, simply to say our understanding is limited does not settle the question as to which view, if any, most approximates reality. Also, for open theists it is not correct to say we believe God’s foreknowledge is limited. We deny that the future exists which means there are no “facts of the matter” for God to know. God’s knowledge would only be limited if there were knowable facts of which God was ignorant. But that is not our position. It is no limitation to say that God does not know what is not real.

I do not know whether Cottrell affirms the dynamic (A-theory) or the stasis (B-theory) of time. He seems to go back and forth between these. At times he speaks of God’s history unfolding with ours and that the future is contingent. If so, then it would seem that the “future” is unreal—it does not exist (the dynamic view). At other times, God is able to see the future which sounds as though it exists (the stasis view). If Cottrell affirms the stasis theory of time then why speak of God experiencing time at all? If he affirms the dynamic theory of time in which the future is not real then what reality is it that the metatemporal perspective provides access to?

Finally, though Cottrell acknowledges that his paper does not address how this view “facilitates providence,” that is a question I am most interested for him to discuss. If doctrines are supposed to accomplish tasks, what does metatemporality accomplish for divine providence? What does incremental simple foreknowledge accomplish for divine providence? What good does it do God to have them? What can God accomplish with them that he could not accomplish without them? I do not see any advantages for God to have these as opposed to having dynamic omniscience and temporality.

Let me conclude by saying that I deeply appreciate the fact that Cottrell is willing to wrestle with these thorny problems. Many Arminians simply dismiss these issues but Cottrell realizes, as Miley did in the Nineteenth-Century, how serious they are for the core doctrines of Arminian theology. He now acknowledges that some of God’s knowledge changes in that God comes to know at a later time something he did not know at an earlier time. This means that, for Cottrell, exhaustive definite foreknowledge is not essential to the divine nature. Also, he freely acknowledges that God takes risks and I argue that the degree of these risks is exactly the same in his view as they are in open theism. Cottrell and I  agree that both before God makes his decision about what sort of world to create, and immediately after he makes that decision, God does not know in full detail what the future will be.  Where we differ, is in how quickly God acquires the knowledge of what will happen.  I hold that God acquires the knowledge as time goes on, whereas for Cottrell God “learns” this somewhat faster.  But this makes no difference whatsoever to God’s providential control, or to the degree of risk taken by God.  Viewed in this light, how important can the difference between the two of us be?

[2] See my “The Assurance of Things to Come” in Looking to the Future, ed. David Baker, (BakerBook House, 2001): 281-294.

[8] John Andrews, “Address to the Reader,” The Works of James Arminius, trans., James Nichols, 3 vols., (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 1991), 2.686.

[9] On Calcidius see J. Den Boeft, Calcidius on Fate: His Doctrine and Sources, Philosophia Antiqua (Leiden: E, J. Brill, 1970), 52. For a summary of McCabe’s arguments see William McGuire King, “God’s Nescience of Future Contingents: A Nineteenth-Century Theory,” Process Studies 9 (Fall, 1979): 105-115 and David Alstad Tiessen, “The Openness of Model of God: An Evangelical Paradigm in Light of Its Nineteenth-Century Wesleyan Precedent.” Didaskalia (Spring, 2000):77-101.

[10] See my God Who Risks, 15. Brents takes an extremely literalistic approach to the texts (e. g. Gen 18:20-1—I will go down to see whether…).

[11] See my discussion in Does God have a Future? With Chris Hall (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker 2003), 124-9

[12] Miley, Systematic Theology (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1892), vol. 1, 192, 214-5.

[14] See my fuller account “Why Simple Foreknowledge Offers No More Providential Control than Open Theism,” Faith and Philosophy 14, no. 1 (Jan. 1997): 26-40 and God Who Risks, 200-6.

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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