King's Evangelical Divinity School

12 October 2009

The Openness of God

Some time ago I reviewed a book which caused quite a stir throughout the US seminary world, particularly those within the Reformed tradition. While I do not endorse everything the authors postulate (I thought several chapters were far better than others), nonetheless this book really forced me to think through at length some issues I'd already half-heartedly engaged with for several years beforehand. If you struggle with the whole issue of election, salvation, the sovereignty of God, free will, and the like, it is well worth a read.

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 Grov, ILL: InterVarsity Press, 1994). 202 pp. pb. £9.99. 0-8308-1852-9

This book challenges classical theism by expounding the `open view’ of God. While aspects of this position have appeared in academic publications over several decades, The Openness of God brings together the various strands to present a coherent and systematic account. The authors’ demand for a radical re-examination of how we relate to and fellowship with God, together with an easy-to-read style aimed at both rank-and-file Christians and scholars, has propelled the open view of God into the Evangelical limelight. Given its radical nature, the inevitable ramifications for daily Christian life and practice, and the consternation it has caused in many Evangelical seminaries in North America all demand this short book is given serious consideration.

Classical theism is the traditional Church view that emphasises God’s transcendence, that is, the notion that He is an all-powerful yet distant and unknowable God who surpasses human experience. As such, classical theism accentuates characteristics such as God’s sovereignty, immutability (unchanging nature) and omniscience. However, the open view focuses far more on a `relational’ or `personalist’ God. Thus, the book seeks a balance between God’s transcendence and nearness, or immanence (the view that God pervades the universe, rather being distant from it).

On the surface, this may not seem that radical. After all, Evangelicals already claim to have a personal, dynamic relationship with God, to communicate and walk with Him daily. Yet according to the classical view, God’s sovereign will and immutability means such a relationship is an illusion. We merely go through the motions because in reality He is in full control and has already predetermined absolutely everything. The open view, on the other hand, argues that God actually is prepared to engage in a dynamic two-way relationship with us. By its very nature, that relationship demands that we can make real choices. Thus, we have real free-will to shape our own future, which an adaptable God works around. Straight away one sees the radical nature of such a proposal, which argues God has laid aside His sovereign will to work with us. He is open to the future, to the choices we make, so that He is constantly and regularly appraising the situation and modifying His plans to take into account our choices and actions. Hence, God is not, after all, immutable, but rather changes as circumstances dictate. Moreover, because the future has not been predetermined, God cannot be omniscient. Rather, an ability to adapt to unexpected events leads the authors to regard God as `omnicompetent’. As one dwells upon this theological approach, it is not difficult to see how the open view has courted such controversy among Evangelical Christians.

There are a total of five essays and the material is presented logically, so that each chapter builds upon the previous. The book begins by constructing a biblical theology aimed at supporting the open view, before moving on to historical theology (really a history of philosophy), which traces how classical Greek philosophy has permeated Church thinking. Next, Clark Pinnock offers a systematic treatment, which includes a useful discussion of the relationship within the Trinity. He also discusses at length how free-will demands the future must be open, thus challenging the classical doctrines of God’s immutability and omniscience. The fourth chapter discusses some of the philosophical issues the classical and open views raise (this is quite different from chapter 2, which offered an historical survey of philosophy). Some of the material is presented wittily and some of the philosophical illustrations are fascinating (though arguably some of the reasoning is not always convincing). Finally, because the open view has a radical bearing on everyday Christian life, the book concludes with a consideration of its practical ramifications upon petitionary prayer, divine guidance, human suffering, social responsibility and evangelistic responsibility.

The focus on a truly relational God is particularly helpful. Yet a problem is the overemphasis upon God as an equal partner (albeit a particularly wise one) in the shaping of our lives and future. It is quite one thing to suggest that, despite having an end-plan, God is willing to grant us free-will in the middle term. It is quite another to argue that the future is so open that God has only sketched out the vaguest of plans, and not just on an individual but also a universal and cosmic basis. When Pinnock states: “Prophecies are generally open-ended and dependent in some way on the human response to them” (p. 122), at the very least he is open to grave misinterpretation.

In particular, David Basinger’s last chapter gives the distinct impression of a God who is not always in control. Consider his example of a woman who feels called by God study at university. Later, when she fails to find employment with her new qualification, she begins to wonder if she heard God’s voice correctly in the first place. This might be so, Basinger concedes. But he suggests an alternative interpretation: “God does not necessarily know what will happen in the future, [so] it is always possible that even that which God in his unparalleled wisdom believes to be the best course of action at any given time may not produce the anticipated results in the long run” (p. 165). Basinger elaborates by explaining how since she embarked on the course, a downturn in the economy that even God did not foresee affected her employment prospects. So she might, after all, have heard God’s voice correctly. Thus Basinger concludes: “Since it is always possible that what will occur as the result of following God’s specific will at a given time will not be exactly what even God envisioned, she can justifiably assume that this may have occurred in her case.” (ibid.). Leaving aside the theological problems such a view raises, one is left not only with the distinct impression of a God who is not in full control, but also of a bungling Supreme Being who dishes out defective advice.

David Basinger concludes by highlighting the `appealing’ nature of the open view (for example, the very real solutions it offers to the problem of evil, and the purpose and value of petitionary prayar). But one cannot help but feel that Basinger’s example of the female student is quite unappealing. Time again, the Bible presents God as the Great Architect, and while the open view correctly forces us to re-examine the subject of free-will in a fresh light, taken to an extreme one can quite easily be filled with dread and hopelessness at the thought of such an open and uncharted future.

In summary, the Openness of God is a useful book that emphasises God’s great love and forces us to re-examine our theology, particularly what it means to have a genuine relationship with God. Some very probing questions concerning free-will successfully challenge all theologically-minded readers, not just Calvinists. Yet taken too far, the open view presents God as an equal partner, rather than a loving Father who exercises some control over our lives. A modified version of the view, such as God conceding some sovereignty by permitting free-will in the middle-term, but who retains overall control over the long term, as well as mapping out the major milestones in our lives (much like Jonah, who ultimately arrived in Nineveh despite his revellion), is far more attractive. Perhaps here is a way to reconcile that longstanding paradox of free-will versus the sovereignty of God.


Leo said...

Thanks for a fair review! Not very common these days.

- Leo

livingjourney said...

I have read some of William Lane Craig's work, Time and Eternity: Exploring God's Relationship to Time. That was some time ago and I have to say I struggled with the concept of it.

By the way, I also have a book called Divine Foreknowledge – Four Different Views...

The first book — Divine Foreknowledge deals with these four views:

1. The Open Theist View – Gregory A Boyd
2. The Simple-Foreknowledge View – David Hunt
3. The Middle-Foreknowledge View – William Lane Craig
4. The Augustinian-Calvinist View – Paul Helm

Thanks for the review :)