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Does the World Limit God?


Ronald Highfield
Professor of Religion
Pepperdine University

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Open theism offers at least six types of argument in its support: arguments from biblical texts, christological arguments, arguments from the idea of persons in loving relation, arguments from the anthropological analogy, arguments from evil, and arguments from the concept of freedom. It defends itself from the charge of making God essentially finite by appealing to a theory of divine self-limitation. This study concludes that open theists’ criticisms of the traditional doctrine are based on caricatures and superficial analyses, its six argument types suffer from serious flaws, and its divine self-limitation theory fails to protect it from the charge that open theism makes God essentially finite.

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The Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement did not develop its own distinctive doctrine of God. Instead, our early leaders, Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, and others, embraced the traditional doctrine mediated by the Reformed tradition. Our forebears found little with which to disagree in Chapter II of the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647): There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory. . . . God hath all life, glory, goodness, blessedness, in and of himself; and is alone in and unto himself all-sufficient, not standing in need of any creatures which he hath made . . . his knowledge is infinite, infallible, and independent upon the creature; so as nothing is to him contingent or uncertain.1 Does the World Limit God? Assessing the Case for Open Theism Ronald Highfield Professor of Religion Pepperdine University Stone-Campbell Journal 5 (Spring, 2002) 69–92 1. Philip Schaff, “The Evangelical Protestant Creeds,” in Creeds of Christendom (6th ed.; 1931; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990) 2:606-607. The historical conditions of early nineteenth-century America that allowed them to assume the traditional doctrine of God no longer exist. A new pluralism reigns in the doctrine of God today. This diversity is represented not only by such mainline theologians as Jürgen Moltmann and Paul Fiddes, who argue for a limited and suffering God, and by process theologians such as John Cobb and David Griffin, who argue for a finite God2; it is present also within evangelical theology in the form of the open theism.3 Open theism revises the traditional doctrine of God in ways that it claims make the doctrine more biblical and of greater contemporary relevance. It charges that the classical doctrine of God advocated by the church fathers, the medieval doctors, the sixteenth-century Protestant reformers, and almost all other Christian theologians until the nineteenth century, gave undue deference to Greek metaphysics, allowing it to trump clear biblical teaching. For this reason, open theists reject or reinterpret such divine attributes as timeless eternity, immutability, impassibility, omniscience, simplicity, and aseity (unconditional independence). Not only are these properties unbiblical, complain open theists, they also undermine human freedom and make it impossible to deal with the problem of evil. Open theism therefore calls on the church to adopt an alternative model of God in which God is subject to change, moves through time along with us, suffers pain, sorrow and disappointment, knows only the past and present (but not the future), and needs the cooperation of creation to accomplish his goals. According to open theist John Sanders, SCJ 5 (Spring, 2002): 69–92 70 2. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, trans. by R.A. Wilson and John Bowden (New York: Harper & Row, 1974); Idem, The Trinity and the Kingdom (trans. Margaret Kohl; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993); Idem, God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God (trans. Margaret Kohl; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993); Paul S. Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988); Idem, Participating in God: A Pastoral Doctrine of the Trinity (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2000); John B. Cobb and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976). 3. The name comes from the book The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994). I will focus on the authors of this book: Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger. I will also include Gregory Boyd whose recent books defending open theism have created a stir within evangelical circles, especially among Baptist theologians. we should not think of God as a sovereign commanding his subjects, a potter manipulating the clay, or a novelist creating his characters; rather, we should imagine God as a “risk-taker,” aiming at a general goal but adapting to changing circumstances along the way.4 In creating our world, God has opened “himself up to the real possibility of failure and disappointment.”5 God does not “micromanage”6 history according to a “blueprint.”7 Like a great jazz player, God improvises, responds and adjusts as his creatures make free decisions. Clearly, open theism has moved far away from the doctrine of God stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith and assumed by the pioneers of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. What shall we make of this new model of God? In this article, I will set out open theists’ major arguments and indicate some of their vulnerabilities. Open theists’ arguments fall into three major divisions: (1) arguments that show the weaknesses of classical theism; (2) arguments that show the superiority of open theism over classical theism; and (3) a defensive argument rebutting the charge that open theism attributes essential limitations to God. In making the first type of argument, open theists assume that showing weaknesses in classical theism lends support to their own cause. The second class of arguments includes six major argument clusters: arguments from biblical texts, christological arguments, arguments from the idea of persons in loving relation, arguments from anthropological analogy, arguments from evil, and arguments from the concept of freedom. The third line of argument contends that God freely chose the limitations he experiences in his relation to the world; hence these de facto limits do not compromise God’s essential unlimited nature. Ronald Highfield: Does the World Limit God? 71 4. John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998) 11. David Basinger, The Case for Freewill Theism: A Philosophical Assessment (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996) 36; Hasker, “A Philosophical Perspective,” in The Openness of God, 151. 5. Hasker, “A Philosophical Perspective,” 151. 6. Sanders, The God Who Risks, 112. 7. Ibid. THE OPENNESS CRITIQUE OF CLASSICAL THEISM Open theists tend to dismiss classical theism with ridicule. Pinnock is not kind to tradition. The “popular belief” of God’s total knowledge of the future “is not so much a biblical idea as an old tradition.”8 For Pinnock, traditional theology lives on in a state of “frozenness,”9 and those who defend it as a “mystery” talk “nonsense.”10 The tradition pictures God as a “terrorist,”11 an “aloof monarch,”12 one who favors “power tactics” over love,13 and a “puppeteer”14 who stays at a “safe distance.” 15 For Hasker, the God of tradition is “self-contained” rather than “open.”16 Sanders, in The God Who Risks, uses even stronger language. The God of tradition is associated with “will-to-power” (11), “forcing” (40, 92), “power-hoarding” (44), “raw omnipotence” (95), “love-of-power” (95), “compulsive retention of power” (116), “abstract power” (188), and “divine rape” (239, 246). Open theists point out the similarities between classical theology and Greek metaphysics. They allege that classical attributes such as immutability and impassibility have their true origin in “pagan philosophy.” 17 Boyd describes this process in the language of subversion. Greek thought, he says, “crept into the church early on and has colored the way Christians look at the world, read their Bibles, and develop their theology. We have thus been subtly conditioned to assume that possibilities, openness, change and contingency are ‘beneath’ God.”18 SCJ 5 (Spring, 2002): 69–92 72 8. Pinnock, “Systematic Theology,” in The Openness of God, 122. 9. Clark Pinnock, “Clark Pinnock’s Response,” in Predestination & Free Will: Four Views of Divine Sovereignty & Human Freedom (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986) 57. 10. Pinnock, “Systematic Theology,” 115. 11. Pinnock, “Clark Pinnock’s Response,” 58. 12. Pinnock, “Systematic Theology,” 103. 13. Ibid., 114. 14. Ibid. 15. Ibid., 102. 16. Pinnock, “A Philosophical Perspective,” 126-127. 17. Gregory Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000) 24. 18. Ibid., 130. The metaphor of seduction lends support to open theists’ contention that the Bible does not teach the classical attributes but a very different view of God. According to Boyd, the doctrine of immutability “owes more to Plato than it does to the Bible.”19 If we declined to read the biblical texts in a “theologically controlled”20 fashion, proposes Sanders, “the prima facie meanings of the biblical texts [would be] allowed to stand without having to measure up to Greek philosophic standards.”21 “The influence of Greek philosophical notions of God is pervasive” among the church fathers, contends Sanders; and, “though the fathers do retain many important features of the biblical God, they sometimes do not allow these features to call into question the philosophical understanding of the divine nature.”22 The thrust of the argument is clear: the centuries-long consensus of the church’s “brilliant and holy men”23 demands less deference if created by misguided confidence in an alien philosophy. Open theists also attack classical theism for its supposed rationalism. Sanders charges Augustine and other classical theists with using abstract notions “to filter the biblical message”24 of ideas unworthy of God. One such abstract idea is the notion of what is fitting for God (dignum Deo). This concept gives the theologian a basis to develop a sense of what is appropriate to attribute to God. Informing this sensibility, according to Hasker, is “perfect being theology.”25 Perfect being theology deduces “conclusions concerning God’s attributes” from the concept of a perfect being. A perfect being cannot suffer from the limits and defects of creatures. God must therefore be impassible, infinite, eternal, omnipotent, etc. Sanders retorts, “In my opinion, philosophical theologians need to pay attention to Ronald Highfield: Does the World Limit God? 73 19. Ibid., 109. 20. John Sanders, “God as Personal,” in The Grace of God, The Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism, ed. by Clark H. Pinnock (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989) 147. 21. Ibid., 178 22. Sanders, The God Who Risks, 141. 23. Alfred Freddoso, “The ‘Openness’ of God: A Reply to William Hasker,” Christian Scholars Review 28 (1998) 124. 24. Sanders, “Historical Considerations,” in The Openness of God, 82. 25. Hasker, “A Philosophical Perspective,” 131. what God has actually decided to do in human history and need to be a little less sanguine about their own intuitions reading what a deity must be like.”26 It remains to be seen, however, whether or not open theists themselves are quite so innocent of “abstract” notions as they claim and whether they can deny the classical attributes and still maintain a clear ontological distinction between “created being and uncreated being.”27 Classical theism, according to open theists, views God’s power in a way that is neither biblical nor compatible with human freedom. Pinnock argues, “Thinking of God as literally all-powerful divests the finite universe of a degree of power.”28 If God “monopolized” power in this way “there could be no created order, certainly not a dynamic one with free agents, and not one producing love and communion.”29 God, viewed from an open-theist perspective, does not “crush” freedom with “overwhelming and coercive power.”30 Rather, God “shares power with us and invites us to work along with him in the re-creation of the world.”31 Throughout The God Who Risks, Sanders contrasts his “risk” view with the (classical) “no-risk” view. The classical God’s “compulsive retention of power,”32 charges Sanders, contrasts with the biblical God’s willingness to share power. Sanders contends that the (classical) “manipulative model” reduces human beings to nonpersons. It is a model of an “I-it” relationship in which the “nonconsensual control” it envisions is more akin to “divine rape” than divine love.33 SCJ 5 (Spring, 2002): 69–92 74 26. Sanders, The God Who Risks, 13. 27. Douglas Kelly, “Afraid of Infinitude,” Christianity Today (January 9, 1995) 32. 28. Clark Pinnock, “Between Classical and Process Theism,” in Process Theology, ed. by Ronald Nash (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987) 316-317. 29. Pinnock, “Systematic Theology,” 113. 30. Ibid. 31. Ibid. 32. Sanders, The God Who Risks, 116. Sanders quotes these words from Van de Beek, Why? On Suffering, Guilt and God, trans. by John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990). 164. 33. Sanders, The God Who Risks, 239-240. OPEN THEISTS’ POSITIVE CASE The Biblical Argument The first direct argument for the superiority of the openness view can be called simply the biblical argument. It runs as follows: (1) By common consent, the biblical narratives portray God as acting in time, responding to human actions, changing plans, learning new information, expressing uncertainty about the future, and experiencing emotions such as surprise, anger, regret, sorrow and grief.34 (2) Unless there is some compelling reason to interpret these texts as poetic or anthropomorphic accommodations to the unenlightened, we should take them at face value “as disclosing to us the very nature of God.”35 (3) Since there are no such compelling reasons for abandoning the literal meaning, we should, in Pinnock’s words, “take the Bible at its word.”36 In effect, its defenders argue that open theism is what you get when you read the Bible without the presuppositions of Greek metaphysics. Open theists view their reading as the default position and wish to shift the burden of proof to their opponents. Open theism stands established until defeated. Sanders surveys these texts in two extensive chapters, totaling over a hundred pages.37 As indicated in premise 1, above, no one seriously disputes that these texts portray God in this dynamic way. The dispute centers on the hermeneutic principles to be applied to these texts. Premise 2 poses no serious problems for the majority of classical theists, who prefer the literal reading whenever possible. Premise 3, however, is vigorously disputed by classical theists, who stand in an interpretive tradition that reaches back to the Apostolic Fathers. For them, the weight of that interpretive tradition alone is enough to cast suspicion on open theism’s enthusiasm for literalism. Ronald Highfield: Does the World Limit God? 75 34. See Gen 6:5-7; 22:12; Exod 4:2-5,8,9; 32:9-14; 1 Sam 15:29; 2 Kgs 20:5; Jer 3:7; Hos 11:8,9; Mark 6:6; Luke 8:43-48; and Jas 4:2. 35. Ibid., 38. 36. Pinnock, “Systematic Theology,” 128. 37. Sanders, The God Who Risks, 39-139. For a similar study, see Rice, “Biblical Support for a New Perspective,” in The Openness of God, 11-58. It is not my primary task to engage the open theist’s biblical argument in detail. I shall merely point out one serious and obvious difficulty it faces. Open theists believe in the immaterial nature of God. They do not wish to read literally the many texts that refer to God’s physical body.38 As Alfred Freddoso points out, however, open theists have not as yet developed a coherent view of God’s transcendence that allows them to differentiate between the texts that should be taken literally and those that should be taken metaphorically. Why should immateriality be favored over impassibility? After all, “immateriality is just another one of those ‘Hellenistic’ divine attributes that has little appeal for the modern mind?”39 The Christological Argument A christological argument also pervades the openness literature. Richard Rice states the premise of the argument in its simplest possible terms. “From a Christian standpoint it is appropriate to say not only that Jesus is God, but that God is Jesus.”40 Rice then draws out the implications of his equation. In view of the incarnation, “it is reasonable to infer that the distinctive features of human experience are most reminiscent of the divine reality. . . . if so, then God enjoys relationships, has feelings, makes decisions, formulates plans and acts to fulfill them.”41 Jesus’ feelings, experiences, temptations and sufferings are God’s as well. Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross was “nothing less than the suffering of God himself.”42 Rice, in dialogue with modern theologians such as Karl Rahner and Robert Jenson, argues that we must equate God’s trinitarian economic SCJ 5 (Spring, 2002): 69–92 76 38. See, however, Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001). Pinnock tentatively sets forth reasons why we may need to revise our belief in God’s immaterial nature. Taking seriously the biblical metaphors of embodiment may demand that “something in God that corresponds with embodiment” (33). It will be interesting to see whether or not this notion will become a serious part of open theism’s revision of the traditional doctrine of God. If so, the problem of inconsistent literalism would be solved. But at what cost? 39. Freddoso, “The ‘Openness’ of God: A Reply to William Hasker,” 132. 40. Rice, “Biblical Support for a New Perspective,” 39. 41. Ibid. 42. Ibid. activity in salvation history with God’s true reality, the immanent Trinity. He concludes, “if salvation history is a revelation of God’s inner reality, we must think of God in a way that is consistent with what we find in this history. Since the qualities of sensitivity, care, commitment, self-giving and self-sacrifice are prominent in salvation history . . . these are the qualities that characterize God’s essential reality.”43 Sanders lays down an equation similar to that of Rice and then pushes it to breathtaking conclusions. “If the incarnation is true and the divine Son experienced fully human life,” premises Sanders, “then God in this way relates to the world in precisely the same way we do.”44 Or more plainly, “Jesus is the model for understanding God’s relationship to the world.”45 Sanders applies this principle to several episodes in Jesus’ life. In Mark 2:5, Jesus healed a paralytic man only “when he saw their faith.” Sanders draws the following conclusion: “The faith of the community seems to have a role in shaping what God actually decides to do.”46 The story is told in Mark 6:6 of Jesus’ inability to do any miracles in Nazareth. Jesus was “amazed at their unbelief.” Sanders, identifying Jesus’ amazement with God’s amazement, concludes that God’s decisions are often “conditioned on the faith or unbelief of people.”47 Jesus’ agonized request for the Father to “let this cup pass from me,” was not “empty rhetoric,” according to Sanders, but indicates that God did not have a “predetermined plan” that required Jesus to go to the cross.48 Open theists manifest carelessness almost unparalleled in contemporary theology. By not distinguishing between the divine and the human natures of the Son, they make it possible to attribute the characteristics of the human nature of Jesus to the divine nature of the Father. Consider Rice’s reckless equation: “Jesus is God” implies that Ronald Highfield: Does the World Limit God? 77 43. Richard Rice, “Process Theism and the Open View of God: A Crucial Difference,” in Searching for an Adequate God: A Dialogue between Process and Free Will Theists (ed. John B. Cobb Jr. and Clark H. Pinnock; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) 197. 44. Sanders, The God Who Risks, 26. 45. Ibid., 115. 46. Ibid., 97. 47. Ibid. 48. Ibid., 100. “God is Jesus.” Unqualified, this equation is subject to wild interpretations, such as the following: if Jesus is God and God is Jesus, then, if Jesus is a Jewish male, God is Jewish male. Such sloppy logic fails to distinguish clearly between the Creator and creation and threatens God’s transcendence with dissolution. Arguments from the Idea of Persons in Loving Relation Christian tradition has always acknowledged that God wishes to establish personal, loving relationships with his creatures. Open theists’ argue that each one of these ideas—relatedness, personhood, and love— fits better within an openness framework than it does within a classical one. For Sanders, “relational theism” is a synonym for open theism. In relational theism, God’s relationship with humans “includes genuine give-and-take relations between God and humans such that there is receptivity and a degree of contingency in God . . . God receives and does not merely give.”49 Sanders does not elaborate on his concept of relation, but clearly he works with a definition of a relation that goes back to Aristotle: two things are really related when they share something real that is constitutive of both; that is, they cannot be what they are apart from the relation. 50 Sanders argues that, just as God’s deity is constituted by the internal relationships among the Father, Son, and Spirit, God’s identity as Creator is constituted by his relation to creation.51 According to Sanders, when God freely established a real relationship with creation, he made his action, knowledge, and emotions henceforth partially dependent on the action of his free creatures.52 “Relationships may SCJ 5 (Spring, 2002): 69–92 78 49. Ibid., 12. 50. For a discussion of real relations in Thomas Aquinas, see Thomas G. Weinandy, O.F.M., Cap. Does God Suffer? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000) 127-138; and Earl Muller, S.J., “Real Relations and the Divine: Issues in Thomas’s Understanding of God’s Relation to the World,” TS 56 (1995) 673-695. 51. Sanders fails to distinguish between God’s internal Trinitarian relations and his external relation to creation. Serious problems arise, however, when these are not carefully differentiated. Earl Muller, S.J., “Real Relations,” 678-679, warns, “One can dispense with this relational asymmetry only by rejecting the transcendence of God . . . a [real] relation affirmed of God’s relation to the world would have the effect of erecting the world as another ‘Person’ in the Trinity.” 52. Earl Muller, S.J., “Real Relations,” 165. backfire. One may be taken advantage of and hurt” observes Sanders.53 If God is genuinely related to us, open theism argues, then by definition God is conditioned and limited by what we decided to do. Open theists argue that their model is implied by the idea that God is a person and relates to us as persons. “The openness of God view sees persons in loving relation as the root metaphor from which theology should grow,” explains Sanders.54 Sanders defines a person as “an agent who acts, wills, plans, loves, creates, and values in relation to other persons.” 55 For Sanders a personal relationship is characterized by dialogue, and dialogue “requires two independent participants.”56 Such a relationship requires that “God does not control everything.”57 The ‘dialogue’ “an omnidetermining deity has with humans is more like that between a ventriloquist and the dummy or a computer programmer and the program or a hypnotist and the subject.”58 Boyd assumes that “there can be no authentic personhood without some element of say-so, some degree of self-determination, some authentic power to influence things.”59 God, explains Boyd, had to give up power so we could be authentic persons because personhood implies the “ability to make authentic choices, including the choice whether to enter into a loving relationship with him.”60 Most Christians throughout all ages have believed that John’s affirmation, “God is love,” is at the heart of the Christian doctrine of God.61 Open theists argue that this treasured faith can be safeguarded best on openness presuppositions. Evangelical open theists have not developed their own theology of love. They draw rather on common sense notions of the nature of love and what it requires. According to Rice, to love Ronald Highfield: Does the World Limit God? 79 53. Ibid., 79. 54. Sanders, “Historical Considerations,” 100. 55. Sanders, “God as Personal,” 175 56. Sanders, The God Who Risks, 215. 57. Ibid. 58. Ibid. 59. Boyd, God of the Possible, 96. 60. Ibid., 97. 61. 1 John 4:8,16. another involves: “sensitivity to the other,” openness to the other’s “experiences,” respect for the “integrity” of the other, and “affirming and valuing the other.”62 Boyd asserts, “Love must be chosen . . . it’s part of its definition.”63 So, love is inherently “risky,” and things may go terribly wrong. “If love is the goal, this is the price.”64 For Sanders, love always involves vulnerability. God’s loving decision to find “joy in our love” means that God risks experiencing “pain in our unfaithfulness.”65 Rice infers the open view from his concept of love. If God loves his human creatures, “God cannot prevent, negate, or undo their decisions and actions,”66 Rice argues. “If love is God’s primary attribute, then God cannot have a monopoly on power . . . there are significant limits to what God can do.”67 A loving God persuades and does not coerce. “He never exerts his influence in ways that violate the integrity of their choices.”68 Transparently, the effectiveness of the argument from “persons in loving relation” depends on whether we accept open theism’s unstated premise that the terms “relationship,” “person,” and “love” may be applied to God in the same sense they have when applied to human beings. The classical doctrine of God has always contended otherwise: all our language about God is analogical. The doctrine of humanity as the image of God is not reversible; God is not the image of humanity. Open theism thus begs the question precisely at the decisive point of disagreement with the traditional doctrine. Arguments from the Anthropological Analogy Open theists make some arguments from what I shall call the “anthropological analogy.” Boyd argues directly from human experience to divine experience. If we are made in God’s image and we enjoy SCJ 5 (Spring, 2002): 69–92 80 62. Richard Rice, “Process Theology and the Open View of God,” 184. 63. Boyd, God of the Possible, 135. 64. Ibid. 65. Sanders, “God as Personal,” 174. 66. Rice, “Process Theology,” 184. 67. Ibid. 68. Ibid. “novelty, adventure, spontaneity, creativity and moment-by-moment personal relationships . . . why think that God is great to the extent that his experience is devoid of such things?”69 If a risk-free eternity would be boring to us, why should we think, “this is heaven to God?”70 In making decisions, human beings experience the future as partly open and partly closed. This observation leads Boyd to conclude: If we believed that all of our future was open, we could not decide between options. If we believed that none of the future was open, again we could not decide between options. Hence, the fact that we obviously do decide between options suggests that at some level we all assume that the future is partly open and partly closed.71 If the future is genuinely open for us, it must be open for God as well. Indeed, since God is the “greatest conceivable being, why should we not conclude that God would have more possibilities open to him?”72 This type of argument, like the one from “persons in loving relation,” depends on the validity of the analogy between humanity and God. It attempts to derive God’s nature from the image of God in humanity. It assumes that everything present in humanity is also present in God but in larger measure. God is humanity enlarged, as it were. Two difficulties with this line of thought stand out. First, it conceives the distinction between God and humanity purely in quantitative terms and ignores the qualitative difference.73 If this is so, however, God must be finite, for only then would the analogy between the lesser and greater hold. Second, Boyd’s analogy between God and humanity is so sweeping and unqualified that apparently it includes limits and imperfections, and at least the possibility of sin. Open theists have not developed a doctrine of analogy that distinguishes God’s likeness from his unlikeness to humanity. Until they do so, we can hardly take this type of argument seriously. Ronald Highfield: Does the World Limit God? 81 69. Boyd, God of the Possible, 128. 70. Ibid., 129. 71. Ibid., 33. 72. Ibid., 131. 73. There is no proportion between red and soft or between good and evil, as there is between any two finite quantities. The Argument from Evil The presence of evil in God’s world is one of the strongest arguments in favor of open theism. Here, as elsewhere, open theists position themselves between classical theism and process theism. Hasker admits that process theists “are in a rather strong position in dealing with the problem of evil.”74 For them, the issue of “how a good and loving God could permit the vast amounts of evil that exist in the world” resolves itself rather easily. God does not “permit” evil at all; he simply cannot prevent it.75 On the other hand, “Calvinism,” according to Hasker, would have us believe that “God has deliberately chosen to cause all the horrible evils that afflict our world.”76 Even in the theory of middle knowledge, God specifically selects all the evil events that occur, though he does not cause all of them. For open theism, however, God has neither “specifically decreed” nor “incorporated into his own prior plan for the world the particular instances of evil which actually occur.”77 “And this opens up for us,” according to Hasker, the possibility of attributing to God certain general strategies by which he governs the world, strategies which are, as a whole, ordered for the good of creation, but whose detailed consequences are not foreseen or intended by God prior to the decision to adopt them . . . In consequence, one is able to abandon the difficult doctrine of “meticulous providence” and to admit the presence in God’s world of particular evils God’s permission of which is not the means of bringing about any greater good or of preventing any equal or greater evil.78 According to Basinger, open theists have an important advantage over classical theists. They can argue that evil is either “a necessary antecedent condition for, or the unavoidable byproduct of, the actualization of God’s creative goals and thus is not incompatible with his existence.” 79 The burden for theists is to rebut the charge that evil cannot SCJ 5 (Spring, 2002): 69–92 82 74. Hasker, “A Philosophical Perspective,” 139. 75. Ibid. 76. Ibid., 152. 77. William Hasker, “Providence and Evil: Three Theories,” RelS 28 (1992) 102. 78. Ibid. 79. Basinger, The Case for Freewill Theism, 86. be accounted for under these two categories. “Would not (should not!) a good God prevent such gratuitous evil?” chides the objector. According to Basinger free will theists can “justifiably affirm counterbalancing evidence allows them to maintain that this world in fact contains no excess evil,”80 whereas classical theists cannot avail themselves of such evidence. God, according to classical theists, is neither bound by “antecedent conditions” nor victimized by “unavoidable byproducts.” “We can only hold God accountable for what he does intentionally,” says Sanders.81 God intended to create a world in which free beings could know and return God’s love. Such a world must also include the possibility of a free rejection of God’s love. In the “risk model,” God knew of the possibility of evil but “did not foreknow that we would actually sin . . . thus he cannot be held morally culpable.”82 Indeed, God had good grounds to expect that humans would not sin, for, given God’s kindness, sin is highly “implausible.”83 Another condition of a world where humans can learn to love God is that “God exercise general rather than specific sovereignty.”84 “God cannot prevent evil . . . and still maintain the conditions of fellowship intended by his overarching purpose in creation.”85 But this means that “pointless” or “gratuitous” evil is possible. Where freedom is respected, “God cannot guarantee that a greater good will arise out of each and every occurrence of evil.”86 The risk model, unlike classical theism, can acknowledge the obvious truth that “the world could have been better than it is” without blaming God for its defects.87 Open theism thus argues that God does not do evil, intend evil, or permit evil, except as a necessary condition or unavoidable byproduct of some higher good. Evil has its origin totally in human freedom; thus Ronald Highfield: Does the World Limit God? 83 80. Ibid., 104. 81. Sanders, The God Who Risks, 261. 82. Ibid., 260. 83. Ibid., 46. 84. Ibid., 258. 85. Ibid., 259. 86. Ibid., 263. 87. Ibid., 260. God cannot remove the risk of evil without destroying freedom. Therefore, God cannot be blamed for evil. Plausible on the surface, this argument suffers from several serious theological flaws. (1) Most disturbingly, it raises the possibility of God becoming morally culpable by breaking a moral rule. Though Basinger and Sanders absolve God of blame, they nevertheless define good and evil apart from God and subject God to a moral regime independent of his will. (2) This argument undercuts the hope that God can remove evil even eschatologically, because, as long as there are free beings, evil will be possible. Is salvation therefore to include losing our freedom? (3) It depends on open theists’ particular definition of libertarian freedom in which humans act totally independently of God, so much so that God cannot know humans’ future free acts. Without this (problematic) understanding of freedom, open theism’s response to the problem of evil would fall apart. The Argument from Human Freedom Open theism’s strongest argument is its claim to be the most consistent form of freewill theism. First, it argues against theological determinists of all stripes that free will is not compatible with determinism. Theological compatiblists, such as Jonathan Edwards, argue that one is free as long as one is able to do what one desires. But is this genuine freedom? Pinnock asserts that compatiblistic freedom “does not deserve the name” freedom.88 “In order to be free,” explains Hasker, “the agent must have it in her power without qualification to perform the action and also have the power to refrain from performing it.”89 Clearly, theological determinism is not compatible with libertarian free will.90 Open theists opt for libertarian freedom and reject foreknowledge. They do not spend much time defending against those who choose the other side, foreknowledge and determinism. Apparently, open theists’ do not think English-speaking evangelicals, their primary audience, will be tempted with that option.91 SCJ 5 (Spring, 2002): 69–92 84 88. Pinnock, “Clark Pinnock’s Response,” 59. 89. Hasker “A Philosophical Perspective,” 137. 90. Boyd, The God of the Possible, 126. 91. This stance is documented by “Clark Pinnock’s Response, 57, to John S. Feinberg’s essay, “God Ordains All Things,” 17-43, both in David Basinger and Randall Basinger, eds. Predestination and Free Will: Four Views of Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom (Downers Second, most open theists argue that affirming both libertarian free will and foreknowledge leads to logical contradictions. Among open theists, Hasker has taken the lead in articulating this argument. His book God, Time and Knowledge is a sustained attack on foreknowledge. He presents a much simpler argument (but adequate for our purposes) in The Openness of God. The argument has seven steps:92 1. It is now true that Clarence will have a cheese omelet for breakfast tomorrow (Premise). 2. It is impossible that God should at any time believe what is false, or fail to believe anything that is true (Premise: divine omniscience). 3. God has always believed that Clarence will have a cheese omelet tomorrow (From 1,2). 4. If God has always believed a certain thing, it is not in anyone’s power to bring it about that God has not always believed that thing (Premise: the unalterability of the past). 5. Therefore, it is not in Clarence’s power to bring it about that God has not believed that he would have a cheese omelet for breakfast (From 3,4). 6. It is not possible for it to be true both that God has always believed that Clarence would have a cheese omelet for breakfast, and that he does not in fact have one (From 2). 7. Therefore, it is not in Clarence’s power to refrain from having a cheese omelet for breakfast tomorrow. (From 5,6) So Clarence’s eating the omelet tomorrow is not an act of free choice (From the definition of free will). Although a full assessment of Hasker’s philosophical argument cannot be attempted within the confines of this study, some brief clarifications are in order. Since Hasker is not arguing against free will, his argument must be a reductio ad absurdum. He intends for the unacceptability of the conclusion to force the reader to question the truth of Ronald Highfield: Does the World Limit God? 85 Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986) 57, when Pinnock quips, “From my reading of books, I have always known that die-hard Calvinists existed. But I had not expected to run into one like Feinberg in the late twentieth century.” 92. Hasker, “A Philosophical Perspective,” 148. at least one of the premises (since the logic is valid). He assumes that no one would want to dissent from divine omniscience or the unalterability of the past, so the problem must be in the first premise:93 “It is now true that Clarence will have a cheese omelet for breakfast tomorrow.” According to Hasker, this premise assumes that all propositions must be either true or false. This assumption begs the question of foreknowledge because God surely knows all true propositions. But propositions about future contingent states of affairs brought about by beings with libertarian freedom are neither true nor false, asserts Hasker. Their truth or falsity is yet to be determined. If we understand premise 1 to be neither true nor false, the problem disappears and libertarian freedom is preserved. To assert that God does not know the truth or falsity of such statements does not therefore violate the premise of divine omniscience. It merely rules out foreknowledge. Open theists thus argue that any theology that would preserve libertarian freedom must give up foreknowledge and middle knowledge and affirm present knowledge only; that is, it must become open theism. Hasker sets up his argument in such a way that any opponent who approaches it on its own terms will almost surely meet defeat. It assumes that: 1) God’s knows the world at least in part by believing propositions that refer to states of affairs; 2) God’s knowledge of the world is contingent on the world; 3) God moves along in time, remembering the past, experience the present and anticipating the future; 4) humans have libertarian freedom. Even if one accepts these assumptions, there may still be ways to defeat it.94 I would deny all these assumptions, however, so my response to the argument would not be direct but indirect. I would dismantle the assumed framework that gives the argument its surface plausibility and attempt to construct an alternative theological perspective within which human freedom and God’s complete foreknowledge are reconciled. There are many solid biblical and theological reasons to assert God’s SCJ 5 (Spring, 2002): 69–92 86 93. But see Alvin Plantinga, “On Ockham’s Way Out,” Faith and Philosophy 3 (1986) 235-246. See also Alfred J. Freddoso, “Introduction,” to On Divine Knowledge, by Luis de Molina, trans. by A.J. Freddoso (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988) 59-60. 94. See William Lane Craig, “Hasker on Divine Knowledge,” Philosophical Studies 67 (1992) 57-78. complete knowledge of the future and the reality of human freedom. The consequences of denying either are catastrophic for the doctrine of God. Christian theologians (Augustinians, Thomists, Arminians, Molinists, and even Calvinists) throughout history, unlike Hasker, have asserted both God’s complete knowledge of the future and human freedom on theological grounds and then worked to reconcile the two. I believe the tradition exhibits sound intuition. THE DIVINE SELF-LIMITATION DEFENSE Open theism views God as working under severe limitations. Because of the nature of creation, God cannot exercise all power or know the future. God depends on creation in some ways, for he cannot achieve his purposes without the cooperation of his human creatures. For this reason, open theists admit, there are no guarantees that God will succeed. Understandably, critics of open theism have accused it of teaching that God is limited essentially and eternally, and they have compared it to contemporary Process Theology.95 Open theism, some have argued, offers us a “diminished God,”96 places “God at risk,”97 and bids us trust a “limited God.”98 Open theists deny these accusations vociferously. They maintain that they do not teach a limited God. The limits God experiences in relation to creation are not necessary and eternal. God chose freely to place himself under these restrictions for the sake of creation.99 God Ronald Highfield: Does the World Limit God? 87 95. Cobb and Pinnock, Searching for an Adequate God, consists of a dialogue between open theists William Hasker and Richard Rice and the prominent process theists, John Cobb, David R. Griffin, and Nancy R. Howell. Griffin, in his contribution to the book, “Process Theology and the Christian Good News: A Response to Classic Free Will Theism,” 1-38, chides open theists for their refusal to take their revisions of the doctrine of God to their logical ends. Griffin (13, 33) also rejects open theism’s strategy of rooting God’s de facto limitations in a divine self-limitation. 96. Bruce A. Ware, God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000). 97. Wendy Murray Zoba, “God at Risk,” Christianity Today (March 5, 2001) 56. 98. Albert Mohler, “The Battle over the Doctrine of God,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 1 (1997) 15. For a periodically updated bibliography on open theism, see The Edgren Fellowship web page: 99. Pinnock, “Systematic Theology,” 112, says God’s limits are “freely chosen, not compelled.” could have remained alone, for no necessity or need required him to create anything at all. Certainly, nothing required God to create a world like ours, one with free beings like us. But God can choose to create a world that limits him. According to Rice, “God voluntarily decides to share his power with his creatures and henceforth cooperates with them in reaching his objectives for the universe.”100 Open theism, according to Pinnock, “understands God to be voluntarily self-limited, making room for creaturely freedom.”101 In contrast to process view, Pinnock clarifies, “the God of the openness model is still capable of coercion, and such a God who is only self-limited could at any time be un-limited.”102 According to Sanders, “God sovereignly enters into a relationship with his creatures in a way that involves risk for both God and his creatures. The almighty God creates significant others with freedom and grants them space to be alongside him and to collaborate with him.”103 Basinger argues that, because God has granted “power to exercise pervasive, morally significant freedom of choice,” God cannot control everything.104 Hasker concurs: “God’s capacity to control the detailed course of events is limited only by his self-restraint, not by any inability to do so.”105 Open theists offer the theory of divine self-limitation as a way of protecting God’s essentially unlimited nature while taking advantage of the notion of a limited God in dealing with the problems of evil and human freedom. I have argued extensively elsewhere that the theory fails.106 Here I can give only the bare essentials of a critique. Assuming it is representative of open theism generally, my focus SCJ 5 (Spring, 2002): 69–92 88 100. Ibid., 191. 101. Ibid., 117. 102. Clark Pinnock, “Preface,” in Searching for an Adequate God, xi. 103. Ibid., 137. 104. Basinger, The Case for Freewill Theism, 36. 105. William Hasker, God, Time and Knowledge (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989) 196. 106. See Ronald Highfield, “Divine Self-limitation in the Theology of Jürgen Moltmann: A Critical Appraisal,” Christian Scholars Review (forthcoming 2002) and “The Function of Divine Self-Limitation in Open Theism: Great Wall or Picket Fence?” (unpublished manuscript, 2001). will be on Sanders’s discussion in which he proposes four types of divine self-limitation:107 1) The very existence of a creation of any kind “implies a limitation on God, since God is no longer the only being that exists.” God now has a relationship to creation and “being in relation to” is a sort of dependence. 2) The creation of human beings “implies limitation, since God is not the humans and God is dependent on them in order to be in divinehuman relation.” God would not be Creator without creation. 3) God limits himself by making choices among various possibilities. He cannot do some things without leaving others undone. For example, God cannot create a universe that has both libertarian freedom and the property of being under God’s complete control. 4) “God cannot exercise meticulous providence and grant human beings libertarian freedom.” To simplify matters, I believe we can consider types 1 and 2 together and types 3 and 4 together. The first two types understand the sheer existence of anything alongside God as a limitation. We can certainly understand why the existence of an eternal being alongside God would limit God. This eternal being would not depend on God for its existence because it would have its own power of being. God could not be the source of the good it embodied. God would be limited eternally by this being. The church fathers therefore rejected any such metaphysical dualism. But why would the existence of a temporal creature limit God? Christian theology affirms with one voice that creatures depend on God completely for their existence. They have no good that they did not receive from God and therefore cannot add anything to God’s perfection.108 Or can they? Ronald Highfield: Does the World Limit God? 89 107. See Sanders, The God Who Risks, 225, whose discussion of divine self-limitation is the most extensive in open theist literature. See also Richard Rice’s two-page section, “A Theology of Divine Restraint,” in his book chapter, “Process Theism and the Open View of God,” in Searching for an Adequate God. 108. Speaking to God, Anselm of Canterbury, in ch. 20 of his Proslogion, quoted in Sokowlowski, God of Faith and Reason (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1995) 10, fn. 2, says, “You are in no way less, even if they [creatures] should return to nothing.” When Sanders argues in 1 that the sheer existence of creatures limits God because it “implies a limitation on God, since God is no longer the only being that exists,” he insinuates that creatures may add to God’s perfection.109 This suspicion is confirmed in 2 when Sanders declares that God depends on creatures for the “divine-human relation.” 110 For this to be true, however, something like metaphysical dualism must be true. God lacks eternally some perfection that must be supplied by creatures. “Before” creation, as it were, the potential good of “future” creatures constituted an eternal lack or need in God. Creatures have a sort of existence eternally alongside God and provide a motivation for creation in time. What Sanders presents as a voluntary self-limitation thus turns out to be an eternal and essential limitation, which is precisely what the theory of divine self-limitation was crafted to avoid. Types 3 and 4 focus on the necessity of choices among mutually exclusive possibilities. “God cannot do everything,” Sanders postulates, “selection is limitation.”111 We can see that this postulate holds for our experience. We cannot be in more than one place at a time, for example. Sanders applies this principle to God as well. God may create possible world A that includes properties {A1, A2, A3, etc.}. God may also create possible world B with properties {B1, B2, B3, etc.}. If world A and world B contain contradictory properties, however, God cannot create world {A + B} which contains both sets of properties. Such a world is not possible. In 4 Sanders offers the conjunction of a world in which God controls everything and a world in which there is libertarian freedom as an example of an impossible world. In response to Sanders, I will not challenge his contention that humans have libertarian freedom or his belief that libertarian freedom is incompatible with God’s complete control. Even if we grant his argument— that God cannot create a world both completely under his control and containing libertarian freedom—Sanders fails to show that God freely chose to come under this limitation. Sanders offers types 3 and 4 as examples of divine self-limitation, SCJ 5 (Spring, 2002): 69–92 90 109. Sanders, The God Who Risks, 225. 110. Ibid. 111. Ibid. but they actually presuppose an eternal essential limitation. As a finite creature, I can limit myself to being in one place only because I am already limited by time and space. In the same way, Sanders pictures God as already (“before” creation) limited by the existence of a range of possible universes from which he must choose. God does not have a choice about what is possible and impossible. Hence, for the second time, the theory of divine self-limitation turns out to depend on a prior eternal and essential divine limitation. CONCLUSION Open theists fall far short of making a convincing case for abandoning the traditional doctrine of God for their revised theism. The criticisms they offer of classical theism are based for the most part on uncharitable caricatures and superficial analyses. In their biblical arguments they abandon the traditional practice of interpretation in which human characteristics apply to God only in an analogous manner; instead they adopt a literalism that calculates the difference between God and humanity only in quantitative terms. Its christological and anthropological arguments summarily sweep away the distinctions painstakingly articulated by the church fathers over centuries and apply creaturely limitations to God, and that arbitrarily. Instead of addressing the problem of evil in the light of the cross and resurrection, open theism absolves God of responsibility by making him impotent. Open theists mistakenly pit divine and human freedom against each other. Where the one is, the other cannot be. For humanity to exercise genuine freedom, open theism imagines, God must remain in the dark and uninvolved with human activity. This view of freedom cannot be supported by the biblical story in which God creates the world from nothing, saves us in Christ by his grace and liberates us from sin, death, and the Devil through the power and intimate presence of his Holy Spirit. Open theism’s divine self-limitation strategy fails to achieve its purpose of preserving God’s essentially unlimited nature while asserting God’s de facto limitation. Divine self-limitation always presupposes an already existing essential limitation. Contemporary Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement adherents are no more likely than their nineteenth-century counterparts to develop Ronald Highfield: Does the World Limit God? 91 a doctrine of God distinctive to the Restoration Movement. We will continue to draw on the resources of other traditions. Open theists’ writings provide a convenient, popular level treatment of many issues of concern in Restoration congregations. They are published by evangelical presses at reasonable prices and seem consonant with ideas of human freedom. Not being well versed in the traditional doctrine of God, it is tempting to read open theists uncritically, a temptation this paper hopes to quell. My preferred hope is that reading open theists’ writings will drive those in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement to pursue deeper understanding of the traditional doctrine of God as clarified by the church fathers, Anselm, and Aquinas and as it is presented by some of its more able contemporary advocates.112 SCJ SCJ 5 (Spring, 2002): 69–92 92 112. The most profound contemporary doctrine of God sympathetic to the classical teaching is Karl Barth, The Doctrine of God, vol. 2, Church Dogmatics, ed. by G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, trans. by T.H.L. Parker, W.B. Johnson, Harold Knight, et al. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957). I also recommend Weinandy, O.F.M., Cap. Does God Suffer? Weinandy defends the Thomistic rendering of the classic doctrine of God against the modern trend to attribute suffering and change to God.

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