June 24, 2002
Evangelicals debate open theism
___By Marv Knox
___What does God know, and when does God know it?
___That question spins in the vortex of a current debate about the nature and character of God as well as human freedom. But unlike many theological quarrels, this one pits conservative evangelical Christians against each other.
___They're arguing about open theism, the belief that God does not know the exact details of the future because humans are free to make decisions that shape t
he future. It asserts that God so relates and responds to free human beings that the future is "open" rather than predetermined.
___Open theism's advocates insist it offers answers to such complex issues as the influence of prayer upon God's actions, the extent of human free will and the problem of evil and suffering. Supporters say open theism interprets the Bible literally when Scripture reports God changed his mind and God was grieved by human actions.
___Detractors claim open theism contradicts classic Christian theology. They say it refutes historic understandings of the all-knowing and unchangeable nature of God. They believe it glosses over divine paradoxes that cannot be understood by finite human minds, and they say it attempts to reduce the eternally transcendent God down to human scale.
___The open theism debate surfaced in the Southern Baptist Convention with the adoption of the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message doctrinal statement. That document, which updated a 1963 version, added this sentence to the article on God: "God is all-powerful and all-knowing; and his perfect knowledge extends to all things past, present and future, including the future decisions of his free creatures."
___More recently, the Evangelical Theological Society voted overwhelmingly to reject open theism. The society of theologians and scholars last fall approved a resolution that states: "We believe the Bible clearly teaches that God has complete, accurate and infallible knowledge of all events past, present and future, including all future decisions and actions of free moral agents."
___Like almost any theological "-ism," open theism can't be contained in a tidy statement, either in support or protest.
___"There is no single, universally agreed-on definition of open theism," said Roger Olson, professor of theology at Baylor University's Truett Theological Seminary in Waco.
___"Generally speaking, however, it is the belief that God is truly personal and interactive with people, such that the 'effectual, fervent prayers' of God's people can make a genuine difference in the way God acts," explained Olson, who is not an open theist but does take its approach seriously. "Scripture portrays God as changing his mind in response to such prayers.
___"Open theism says that God has freely chosen to limit himself so that he does not foreordain or cause all that happens. The future is partly open because it depends on what human persons decide to do."
___And open theism reflects the practical theology of ordinary Christians, adds Wallace Roark, professor of Christian studies at Howard Payne University in Brownwood.
___"Open theism is an effort to bring our doctrine and our practice into harmony," said Roark, who is an open theist.
___"Open theism is the theology most Christians actually live by, that unconsciously we believe. We live believing the good news that the future is open. It is dependent on how we decide to relate to God. We are free to repent of our sinful ways and turn to God, whose arms are 'open wide.' Our future is open. It is not already in and done from all eternity."
___Nevertheless, open theists still believe God is completely sovereign over all creation--that open theism does not seek to reduce God's power or knowledge, noted John Sanders, professor of religion and philosophy at Huntington College in Huntington, Ind., author of a best-selling book, "The God Who Risks," and a leading apologist for open theism.
___Sanders summarized open theism with five principles:
___ Sovereign God freely determined to create humans capable of experiencing God's love.
___ Although totally free and sovereign, God's love for people led God to base some actions on what people do.
___ In divine wisdom, God exercises "general" rather than "meticulous" providence--or control--over the future.
___ God has given people the freedom necessary to establish "a truly personal relationship of love" with God.
___ God, who indeed is omniscient, "knows all that can be known or all he wants to know."
___Like other conservative Christians, open theists cite both biblical and theological reasons for their beliefs.
___"The main line of biblical argument in favor of open theism is all the instances in which God relents in response to prayer," Olson said. "For example, God granted King Hezekiah more time to live after declaring he would die very soon. God changed his mind in response to prayer.
___"Open theists interpret this very literally--God changed his mind in response to prayer."
___At least three dozen biblical texts report God changed his mind, Sanders noted.
___The Old Testament repeatedly says God changed his mind in response to his people, Roark added. "Love is always open and dynamic and thus open to change its course in its genuine involvement and interaction with the loved one."
___The "supreme change" occurred when Jesus came to Earth and experienced human life, he added. Jesus' incarnation--becoming God in human form--is both the fullest manifestation of God's love and the complete immersion of God into humanity.
___The primary theological consideration in favor of open theism is that "Scripture portrays God as loving and personal, and to be both loving and personal is to interact," Olson said. "A being who cannot be acted upon--who cannot be affected by other persons--is neither truly personal nor loving.
___"The God of the Bible is a God who goes on a journey through history with his people. He remains superior to them in his omnipotence, but he condescends to allow them to affect his smaller plans and ways. In the end, of course, God's great plan for human history will be achieved, even if some people misuse their free will and are excluded from enjoying God's redemption."
___Advocates say open theism provides answers for several prominent theological issues, especially intercessory prayer. If God is immutable--cannot be changed--as traditional Christian belief asserts, then what difference does prayer make? Why pray for people and causes if the future is determined and God will not change it?
___"After 25 years of digging into Scripture, researching theology and philosophy, and reflecting on our spiritual lives, especially prayer, I've concluded that we actually can affect God," Sanders said.
___"Hence, what most evangelicals live out in piety is correct," he added, advocating a "biblically faithful, logically consistent and spiritually helpful view of who God is and the nature of God's relationship with us."
___"Open theists argue that their view of God and God's foreknowledge is consistent with the ordinary Christian's prayer life," Olson stressed. "Christians pray as if their prayers can make a real difference in the way God acts."
___Open theism advocates also say their approach explains why much evil and suffering exist in the world: Because freedom is a necessary component for reciprocating divine love, it can be misused to do evil. That is the price humanity pays for the opportunity to experience God's love.
___Detractors of open theism, however, find it lacking, if not heretical.
___At the Evangelical Theological Society meeting last fall, Bruce Ware, a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said open theism undermines the deity of both God and Jesus.
___Some of the harshest criticism of open theism has come from bastions of Calvinism such as Southern Seminary. Calvinism, based on the 16th century reformer John Calvin, strongly emphasizes God's sovereignty. Open theism offends Calvinists' belief that God has predestined human history and already chosen or "elected" people who will become Christians.
___Ware claimed substitutionary atonement, the understanding that Jesus' death on the cross substituted for the eternal punishment humans deserve, would not be possible according to open theism. That's because Jesus could not have known who would be conceived and later sin in the future, he said.
___A.J. Conyers, professor of theology at Truett Seminary, faults open theism from another vantage point, saying it oversimplifies some vital but complex ideas about the nature of God.
___"It obscures the fact that Christianity begins in a paradox, namely the incarnation of God in Christ," Conyers said.
___Although humanly illogical, God could have exhaustive, definite foreknowledge of events and be never-changing, even while giving humans freedom and experiencing a loving, personal relationship with them, he insisted.
___Proper handling of divine paradox--Jesus being fully human yet fully divine; God being all-knowing and unchanging yet interactive with humanity--is the key to Christian theology, and open theism fails at this point, Conyers insisted.
___"The uniqueness of Christian theism is precisely in this 'openness'" to creation, time and change, he said. "Yet the real tension and power in this Christian understanding of the world is that the God who made himself subject to the weakness and vulnerability of his own creation (by coming to Earth as Jesus) is precisely the God who created that world and thus stands apart from its limitations and creatureliness."
___Here is the Christian paradox, Conyers said: "The power of God is revealed in the weakness of a man. Thus the human condition as it is experientially understood, and the power of God which makes the world a place shaped by a moral purpose, stand side by side, with neither canceling the other."
___Open theism's simplification of the issues is "off-target," he added. "It leads ... to a less mature and satisfactory Christianity, but not to heresy per se."
___Ware has called open theism "unacceptable as a viable, acceptable model within evangelicalism."
___But Olson said evangelicals and traditional Baptists need to make room for dialogue with open theists.
___"The open theists are not arguing against Scripture; they are arguing against a traditional interpretation of Scripture," he said. "Their unanimous appeal is to Scripture itself and not to philosophy or experience or tradition. While they respect and use those sources and norms, they do not rely on them over or against the Bible.
___"Open theism will always remain at most a 'minority report' within evangelical Christian and Baptist circles," Olson said. "Rather than get all worked up about it and go on a witch hunt to root out open theists, let's keep discussion about it open, civil and constructive."
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