The Openness of God, Part 1
1990 I was teaching a class at Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster,
Pennsylvania. Being an adjunct professor, I often came early to
read some of the periodicals in the Library. One day I happened
to pick up a copy of Christianity Today, dated February
19, 1990, and noticed an article with the intriguing title of The
to Robert Brow, the author, a sea change was taking place in Evangelical
theology. One aspect of this change was a shift from a doctrinal-centered
Christianity to one that placed more stress on experience. In the
article, Dr. Brow used as an example of this "mega-shift"
a decreasing emphasis on the doctrine of justification by faith
and an increasing stress on the doctrine of adoption.
had called the doctrine of justification by faith the mark of a
standing or falling church and many Church theologians consider
it to have been the key biblical doctrine recovered by the Reformation.
In Dr. Brow's view, the doctrine of justification, as explained
by Classical theologians, was modeled on the Roman judicial system.
The motif of the presentation was a courtroom where God presided
in the role of judge. The doctrine of justification emphasized legal
terms such as judgment, guilt, and eternal punishment in hell. These
were themes that people of the late twentieth century often found
offensive and unhelpful to the realities of every day life.
the presentation of the doctrine of adoption, or introduction into
the family of God, emphasized a family room where God was portrayed
as the Father. People who had experienced loneliness and estrangement
could identify with this portrayal of God and the Christian life.
Concepts such as acceptance, love, and intimacy resonated with such
persons. For people of the late 20th Century, this was a more realistic,
and in their view, more biblical, picture of God and the Christian
life. Ministers were more apt to speak of God's love than of God's
wrath. Following Dr. Brow's commentary were the responses of several
theologians who either favored the new emphasis or warned against
being so struck by the article that I asked the librarian to make
copies for each member of the class. I told the students that, in
my opinion, this was the most important article that had appeared
in a religious magazine in the last twenty years. There was no doubt
that such a "mega-shift" was taking place and this would
be the spiritual climate in which they would exercise their ministries.
that has taken place in the Evangelical movement since that day
has caused me to change my opinion about the significance of that
article. There has been a definite shift away from a doctrinal-based
religion toward one that appears to be experience driven.
At the same time, however, I could not help wondering whether other
restatements of basic Christian doctrines would occur. I did not
have to wait long.
years of the original article, the opening salvo in a new offensive
against the Classical presentation of theology was launched. This
time the debate focused on the doctrine of God or what is called
theology proper. The advocates of a restatement of this doctrine
called their view "the Openness of God theology." While
the doctrine being reconsidered was the doctrine of God, and not
the doctrine of justification, the reasoning and methodology were
the same. The writers claimed that the "Classical" view
of God, as held by the Church for centuries, failed to portray the
Biblical view of God. These are serious charges, indeed, and every
Christian needs to be aware of their implications.
At its heart,
"Openness theology" deals with the understanding that
one has of the Person of God Himself. Because of the importance
of this subject, three articles will be devoted to it. In the first
article, we will seek to set the context for this discussion and
the questions under debate. The other articles will deal with the
Scriptural basis on which the Openness theologians present their
arguments and with the arguments that the Classical theologians
use to rebut the Openness position and maintain the Classical view
of the Doctrine of God.
At the outset,
I believe it is important to state that it appears that those who
advocate the Openness position do so more as a reaction against
perceived views of God than from new exegetical insights from the
Scriptures. Although one must be careful in imputing motives to
others, it appears that Openness theology is a reaction against
views of God that emphasize His transcendence or difference from
man. There is a reaction against a God Who is sovereign and Who
both knows and controls future events.
of the Openness position disagree with the Classical presentation
of God for two reasons. First, they are convinced that this description
of God has its origin more from Greek philosophy and not as much
from the Bible. They especially dislike the use of non-Biblical
words such as infinity, immensity, etc. to describe God's character.
The result of this vocabulary makes God appear remote and impersonal.
Second, they believe that the Classical view of God inhibits, or
even denies, the freedom of man. Because God knows the future perfectly,
this reduces man to nothing more than a robot incapable of making
free and responsible choices. As a result, man has no ability to
influence the future, either for good or evil. Because all has been
preordained, such concepts as responsible and free choice, the liberty
of the will, and prayer are reduced to meaningless concepts. These
are serious charges indeed.
the portrayal of God that the Openness theologians claim Classical
theology has taught is unattractive. A God Who is static, detached,
and incapable of emotion has little appeal to people who face the
difficulties and sorrows of life. Should one follow this view out
to its logical conclusion, it means that all of life has been preordained
and there could be no such thing as responsible choice in the universe.
By definition, there could be no such things as contingency, secondary
means, or uncertainty.
also mean that much of theological study, supposedly for the purpose
of knowing and explaining God, has been tragically distorted. The
description of God and His attributes by using Greek philosophical
concepts has triumphed over the clear exegetical insights gained
from the close study of the Word of God. Ultimately, the God of
Classical theology would have to be the author of sin. He would
have created men for no other purpose than sending the majority
of them to an eternity of misery in hell. Life would be totally
devoid of meaning because we live in a mechanistic universe.
this "Classical" view of God, the authors propose the
"Openness of God." This means that God has voluntarily
limited His knowledge of the future and there are things that He
has chosen not to know. This means that the future is, in some ways,
as unknown or open to God as it is to man. This also means that
man can influence history, that prayer does change the mind of God,
and God Himself is capable of repentance or changing His mind.
to the Openness theologians, this new view of God has many advantages.
It means that man does indeed have freedom, that responsible choices
are necessary because they help determine the future, prayer takes
on a whole different dimension and importance because prayer changes
things, and man is more than a robot. This gives us a more attractive
view of God because men can relate better to a God Who does not
predetermine the future, a God Who takes man into partnership concerning
what is to take place, and is, on the whole, a great deal more appealing
to people that face the daily uncertainties of life.
IMPORTANCE OF THIS DEBATE
portrayal of God has repercussions far beyond just individual theologians
developing a new way of studying theology. The persons who advocate
this new view of God are from the Evangelical camp. What they say
and teach will have an influence on the Evangelical movement for
decades to come. It is not enough just to say they are merely attempting
to be true to Scripture and not to take into account the impact
of their statements.
has been made clear. The Evangelical movement, held together by
a voluntary consensus of theology more than by ecclesiastical organizations
and doctrinal confessions, is in great danger of imploding. Whether
or not the Openness theology is correct, at present, there is no
effective means to evaluate it other than by personal opinion. The
Evangelical weakness regarding the doctrine of the church, or ecclesiology,
has been exposed by this controversy. While the desire to preach
the Gospel and evangelize has been a laudable objective, the lack
of a clear idea of the church and ecclesiastical discipline is evident.
Evangelicalism, although giving formal assent to the role of the
church, has been influenced more by strong personalities and para-ecclesiastical
organizations than by churches.
Evangelicalism has also been characterized by a pragmatic spirit
rather than by theological accuracy. This agrees with the American
spirit that chafes at theological discipline and restraint. Americans
favor movements that "get the job done" more than organizations
that spend time and resources discussing theological intricacies.
To the writer,
this question touches on the future of Evangelicalism itself. Since
the formal appearance of the so-called "mega-shift," questions
and debates have arisen over the doctrine of justification itself
and the legitimacy of alliances with Roman Catholics.
has not been lost on those who have lamented a decline in the study
of theology in the church. Their concern is that methodology has
triumphed over doctrine. Tragically, this has brought about more
controversy than understanding. However, one thing is certain. It
is serious because the Openness theology touches on other issues
of prime importance including hermeneutics or the correct method
to interpret the Word of God.
At the beginning,
we must not fall into the trap of name-calling and pejorative comments.
Thus, we need to understand the basic concern of the Openness theologians.
They sincerely believe that the Classical method of describing God
is not true to the Word of God because it dehumanizes man who now
is reduced to little more than a robot. Life has no meaning because
everything has already been predetermined. Openness theologians
believe that their view of God will restore to man the dignity and
responsibility to make correct choices that will affect history.
not just a difference of opinion between theologians that has no
reference to real life situations. In some senses it is a battle
for the soul of Evangelicalism and will chart the path that the
movement will take in the coming years. At stake in this controversy
is the Gospel itself. Sooner or later, theological differences make
an impact on our understanding of the Gospel and how men can be
reconciled to God. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul
stated that God had entrusted him with the Gospel. The most precious
thing that God can commit to man is His Gospel. How important it
is that we be faithful stewards of what has been entrusted to our
stewardship! The word entrusted has the same root as the
word faith or to believe. God has believed in
us to the extent that He has placed in our hands the message that
has eternal consequences for mankind. May we be found faithful to