Does God Need a Facelift? Open Season on God

Chuck Goddard

THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 1-2. Spring & Fall 2015. Volume 33. Posted Sept., 07, 2015  

The classical view of God’s foreknowledge has been embraced by Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant traditions for centuries. Historically Christians have found deep assurance in the presupposition that God’s intellectual capabilities are infinite. The term theologians have used to describe this attribute of God is omniscience. Scholars generally agree that divine foreknowledge means God knows the past, present, and future exhaustively with equal and infinite clarity. This belief in God’s foreknowledge has sustained and comforted Christians for generations.

Recently, however, an old idea has been resuscitated to challenge divine foreknowledge and it is now called Open Theism. Succinctly stated, Open Theism denies that God possesses exhaustive foreknowledge of future events. Proponents of Open Theology want to change the historical position of the Church on these core questions: “What does God know?” and “When does He know it?” Open Theism gained momentum in the 1990s following the release of The Openness of God: a Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God, by Clark Pinnock [InterVarsity Press, 1994]. Almost immediately more Evangelical theologians joined Pinnock in this quest to redefine the nature of God. For them, the traditional position of a sovereign, omniscient being portrays God as too coercive and controlling for our sophisticated IPhone world. It is their contention that the doctrine of God that was hammered out over the first five centuries of the Early Church is inadequate, old and wrinkled. The doctrine of God’s foreknowledge needs a makeover. And the adjustments needed are so pronounced this problem cannot be fixed with a simple application of wrinkle cream. God needs a facelift — a radical facelift.

Advocates of Open Theism believe the answer to the outdated historical doctrine of God can be summarized with the following core statements: First, God is open or receptive to what creatures do. This means God does not unilaterally determine the course of events in the universe. Theologian John Sanders writes that God bestowed a measure of autonomy upon the world. And while Sanders will quickly concede that freedom of choice may not apply to all creatures, he asserts it most certainly applies to humans on earth. Since we have autonomy, he avers, we have freedom to act and make choices completely outside of the realm of God’s foreknowledge. Sanders contends that our freedom to choose is so radically unpredictable that God has no idea what we are going to do until we initiate an act or a choice [The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence, InterVarsity Press, 1998]. Thus God is held hostage by uncertainty until He knows what we are going to do.

Open Theology also identifies God’s love as a controlling theological motif. If God’s love is His preeminent essence and nature, then divine sovereignty is antithetical to His love. How can a loving God exercise absolute power over the universe? They believe such unbridled authority is too coercive and controlling. In other words, divine sovereignty by definition violates both God’s love and man’s free will. A third characteristic of Open Theists is they deny God possesses meticulous providence. Instead, God reacts to the “moves” we make. According to them, the future is at least partly open. At a minimum this means that Open Theology withholds from God the ability to know what we are going to do prior to our actions.

Finally, they believe this fresh interpretation of the nature of God bestows upon us the crown jewel of what it means to be human: libertarian freedom. The Open Theist believes that we are free to make choices that may be against our nature. For instance, our desire may be to sin, but we can choose not to sin. Open Theology believes this ability to choose cannot be swayed or influenced by external influences — not even divine influence. Since we possess libertarian free-will, God cannot be held responsible for the existence of sin and evil. God is off the hook. After all, how can we blame God for the actions of humanity if He doesn’t have foreknowledge of their actions?

Open Theology is not new. It is an old idea dressed in a new suit of clothes. Some of the core tenets promoted by Open Theists were expressed by Socinus in the 16th Century. Church history identifies him as a heretic whom Wesley opposed. Like Wesley, we must recognize that alterations to the doctrine of God, no matter how insignificant they may appear, can have profound ramifications upon the entire matrix of one’s belief system. All credible theologians believe that the doctrine of God is the fountainhead from which all other truth flows. Yet some professors, such as Nazarene theologians Thomas Oord and Michael Lodahl, enthusiastically promote Open theology. One does not have to be an astute church historian to know that this modern reinterpretation of the Doctrine of God is antithetical to centuries of Christian tradition. It is also in direct conflict with the doctrinal statement found in the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene [COTN]. For over one hundred years the doctrinal statement on the nature of God has remained essentially unchanged. It reads

We believe in one eternally existent, infinite God, Sovereign of the Universe. That He only is God, holy in nature, character and purpose, creative and administrative. That He, as God, is Triune in essential being, revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Oord and Lodahl see themselves as theological innovators who are removing ancient barriers that have made God inaccessible and unattractive to our secular and scientific culture. The typical advocate of Open Theology wants to redefine the “omni doctrines.” Although the terms omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient have been used for centuries to describe God, some contemporary Nazarene theologians would like to alter (if not eliminate) these historical doctrines. It is their opinion that these doctrines are out of touch with modern times. They want to redefine God by insisting the controlling interpretive category of God’s nature is love. They also believe God experiences others in some way analogous to how creatures experience others. They believe both creatures and God are relational beings, which means, that both God and creatures are affected by others in give-and-take relationships. They present a God who takes calculated risks because God is not all-controlling. They see the future as open and undetermined; not predetermined or fully known by God. Regarding the future, they believe God can only know what is knowable. They assert the future is not knowable to God. God’s expectations about the future are partly dependent upon creaturely actions. Finally, although God is everlasting, God experiences time in a way analogous to how creatures experience time.

Although Christian theology for centuries has defined God as being all-powerful, all-knowing, and unchanging, an element within the theological community of the Nazarene Church insists that these are outdated beliefs. Some COTN theologians reject a sovereign God whose omnipotence knows no rival. To grant God the right to exercise such raw and unbridled power (they believe) gives God a license to be coercive and tyrannical.

In other words, the classical view of divine sovereignty is incompatible with a God whose nature is defined in terms of supreme love. Nazarene advocates of Openness prefer to envision the God of Scripture as one who “shares” His power with us. Lodahl writes, “The God we call omnipotent does not exercise all power; if indeed power has been shared with us.” He continues, “This is far more than a matter of quantity, of divvying up power; rather, it may be more accurate to say that the very nature of divine power is empowerment of the other” [The Story of God, 60]. With this one statement Lodahl erases centuries of Christian tradition and gives God a radical facelift!

The doctrinal adjustments necessary to accommodate the Open Theology matrix do not end with limiting God’s power, however. The COTN Open Theist typically believes that the classical God (who is perceived to know the future exhaustively) is better viewed as having limited knowledge of the future too.

In an article entitled The Emergence of Open Theology, Oord contends that if God’s primary characteristic is love, then the following assertions about God are true. God cannot know the future. The future is partly open. God takes calculated risks because love is not willing to be controlling of another. God’s expectations about the future are partly dependent upon creaturely actions. God experiences time in the same way we do. God experiences others in the same way we experience others.

Oord also believes the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo [out of nothing] must be rejected. Ignoring the fact that this has been a belief of the Church for centuries, in spite of the fact the history is full of great minds who embraced this doctrine that God created the universe out of nothing, Oord claims that the Scriptures do not support such a doctrine. How did all the theological giants of Church history miss what is so obvious to Oord? Oord believes that it should be easily evident to all that the classical view of creation is coercive and violates the principle of divine love.

Open Theism is also a welcomed alternative to the doctrinal disagreements the typical Arminian has with Calvinism. COTN Open Theists believe that if God has constrained foreknowledge (rather than exhaustive foreknowledge) then He cannot be held responsible for the existence of evil in the world. Thus, we really do have freedom of choice.

Advocates of Openness also postulate that if human beings are truly autonomous, they can make decisions and exercise their wills without any input from God. And if God truly doesn’t know (in advance of one’s choice) what they will do, then God cannot be held responsible for the deeds and actions of humans. The theological payoff for the Open Theist is two-fold: God cannot be held responsible for the presence (and existence) of evil in the world and humans are totally free. Both of these payoffs provide Arminian solutions to the Calvinistic alternative, but at what expense?


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