McCormack’s Barth & Open Theism—Part 1

Barth must be the most photogenic theologian of all time. Gotta give him that. Very cool. Love the pipe.

It’ll be June before we engage McCormack’s Ch. 10 “The Actuality of God: Karl Barth in Conversation with Open Theism” (in Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives [Baker, 2008]). If you’re interested, you’ll want to read our 13 page version of that chapter (edited down from the original 58 pages). In this post we only want to summarize the main points of McCormack’s argument. After we’re clear on just what McCormack’s argument is, we’ll begin to engage it. But for now we want to be sure his points are understood. I hope discussion of this summary can produce a succinct paragraph or two that captures the heart of McCormack’s argument against open theism. It would be great to have Kim Fabricius or others who agree with McCormack here to chime in. I thought I’d number the main points in order as they’re encountered in the chapter. Having them numbered will help when discussing them.

Here we go—

1 Both classical and open theisms have values that need to be preserved, but neither can preserve these values because both occupy a shared metaphysical ground on which no resolution is possible. Barth on the other hand represents a break with this metaphysical heritage and is able to preserve in a single, unified conception the values rightly pursued by both classical and open theists.

2 Open theism is found on a spectrum of beliefs that ranges from classical theism on one end to process theism on the other. In spite of their differences, classical and process theism share the methodological decision to determine a priori from reflection upon some aspect(s) of creaturely reality what is knowable about God independently of God’s self-revelation in Christ.

3 When Christology is finally introduced, its central terms (‘deity’, ‘nature’, ‘person’) have already been filled with content. Barth on the other hand rejects such metaphysical thinking and adopts a strictly Christological approach.

4 Open theists are interested in two things: the will of God as it relates to free rational creatures (i.e., providence) and the question of what God knows and when he knows it (i.e., foreknowledge). They hold exhaustive divine foreknowledge to be incompatible with human freedom, but more basic is their take on the divine concursus, the doctrine of providence which addresses the question of how God interacts with creatures in order to ensure that his will is done.

5 Open theism’s fundamental metaphysical move is deriving a metaphysics of love from the Johannine axiom that “God is love” and to do so independently of Christology. This axiom is made into a hermeneutical key to interpret biblical evidence without any sense that an illegitimate anthropopathizing of God might be taking place.

6 The OT contains passages which speak of God as changing his mind or repenting of decisions already made. It also contains passages that set forth a strong view of immutability. Open theists make the former a “fixed pole” and treat the latter as a problem to be solved. Both passages should be left to stand in unresolved tension in the realization that ancient perceptions about God would quite naturally undergo growth and development until the definitive had come in the form of his Son.

7 Re: Christology Pinnock finds himself in a dilemma. On the one hand he wants to affirm divine mutability in a strong sense. On the other hand he needs to uphold the full humanity of Jesus. Boyd/Eddy offer an ‘evangelical kenoticism’ in which Jesus gives up only those divine attributes that would conflict with his human nature. This kenoticism leaves untouched the ‘essentialism’ that made classical theism even possible. The lack of an adequate Christology — one which gives comprehensive attention to the problem of the ontological constitution of the Mediator — to be the single biggest defect of open theism.

8 Re: divine providence, open theists’ doctrine of providence is rooted in Arminianism, viz., its understanding of (libertarian) freedom. But open theism’s radicality emerges in their view of divine foreknowledge. How does God convert (in open theism)? Through an offer of the gospel which individuals are (libertarianly) free to accept or reject. This view of freedom is the motor that drives open theism’s doctrine of providence. It also means God’s will is a work-in-progress.

9 Re: the philosophical case for open theism, the heart of the argument against exhaustive foreknowledge is the claim that such knowledge is logically incompatible with genuine human freedom. The Achilles heel of this argument lies in the fact that it confuses “certainty” with “necessity” as Bill Craig has described. God’s foreknowledge gives him certainty about what will happen, but this has nothing to do with determining the ‘necessity’ vs ‘contingency’ of the events. This logic is irrefutable.

10 Re: the orthodoxy of open theism, its doctrine of foreknowledge goes beyond anything that traditional Arminianism would grant. The Council of Orange (5th c) best delimits the only orthodox theological options here: either unconditional election or a conditional election based upon God’s foreknowledge of those who believe.

11 God’s being is actus purus et singularis. Barth believed that what God is can be known, but only in the act of his own self-revelation. We cannot know what God is on the basis of what ‘actuality’ is outside the event of God’s revelation in Christ. God’s being-in-act is a being in a particular event, an event whose singularity consists in the fact that its basis is different from all other events in history.

12 It follows that we can know what is meant by “God is love” only when we have before us the divine “person” and not human persons. “God is love” does not mean simply that God is well disposed toward us. It is a statement which describes the nature and meaning of the act in which God gives himself his own being.

13 The correction offered here to open theism is obvious. Open theists would really like to say what Barth says, that love is the “essence” of God. On the basis of metaphysical essentialism, however, they are only able to speak of dispositional states.

14 In sum, God’s being-in-act is his being in the eternal act of turning toward the human race in the covenant of grace, and as a direct consequence, it is his being in history as incarnate Lord and outpoured Spirit as the completion of this eternal act.

15 If the problems resident in the nexus of ideas which made the Chalcedonian Formula possible in the first place are to be overcome without setting aside the theological values contained in that formula, then clearly a different set of ontological commitments is needed. This means replacing the doctrine of “substance” with a different understanding of “essence”—one that is both actualized and historicized. In the process, the thought of a divine timelessness and impassibility is rendered completely untenable. That is Barth’s contribution.

16 The critique of impassibility asks, Who is the subject who suffers in Jesus? A single-subject Christology such as Chalcedon’s cannot adequately answer this. There can be only one subject who suffers in Christ, and this cannot happen without any ontological implications for his divine nature. If the Logos is the subject of the human sufferings of Jesus, then suffering is an event which takes place within the divine life — which means that the divine “nature” cannot be rightly defined in abstraction from the event. That nature can only be defined by this event.

17 One can indeed say that God knows all that will happen in the world even before he creates the world and one can even say that God knows all that will happen precisely because he has willed all things (thus making foreknowledge to be dependent upon foreordination) and still not make all events to be necessary. Foreknowledge does not itself necessitate anything.

18 Compatibilism (in Thomas’ hands) is indeed coherent. But Barth did not follow Thomas or the later Calvinists in making the efficacy of God’s eternal will depend on a work that God does in human beings. He provided a revised understanding of providence that honors the autonomy proper to the creature (Barth’s doctrine of concursus).

19 How is God’s will made effective in the world? Barth’s answer is simple: God makes his will effective through his Word and his Spirit. God’s utterance to all creatures of his Word has all the force and wisdom and goodness of his Spirit.

20 In sum, the concern of open theists to preserve the relative autonomy proper to the creature has been upheld by Barth. But he has upheld it without surrendering an exhaustive divine foreknowledge. God knows all things because he wills all things: This much Barth shares. But God wills all things only in relation to a covenant of grace which is made efficacious in and through all creaturely occurrence without detriment to the relative autonomy of human beings.

21 To define the “essence” of God in terms of both necessity and contingency, of immutability and mutability, of absoluteness and concreteness is to allow both elements in these pairs to be canceled out by the other, for an essence that is contingent, mutable and concrete cannot be necessary, immutable, and absolute unless God is necessary, immutable and absolute precisely in his contingency, mutability and concreteness.

We’re going to make this summary available for comment and engagement until we’re confident we’ve accurately understood McCormack’s position and boiled it down to its essentials. No sense in moving forward until that’s done.

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5 comments on “McCormack’s Barth & Open Theism—Part 1

  1. tgbelt says:

    We’d love it if Kim F and anyone else as familiar with McCormack’s point as Kim is, to boil this down for us.

  2. tgbelt says:

    If I had to boil down McCormack’s Barthian case against open theism, here’s what I’m hearing:

    If we truly derive our understanding of God from Christ alone and not from a priori philosophical reflections upon creation, we would be lead to conclude:

    (a) God is triune only in his free determination to create and incarnate and thus be God-for-us,
    (b) God’s predetermination of all things (and thus his foreknows all that will occur) is his willing of all things as the historical stage upon which the covenant of grace in Christ is played out,
    (c) God is not timeless but temporal,
    (d) God is not impassible but passible,
    (e) God makes his predetermined will effective via ‘concursus’ (the ‘cooperation’ by which God’s ‘Word’ and ‘Spirit’ bring about God’s will in/through creaturely occurrence), and
    (f) free choice isn’t incompatible with foreknowledge.

    • tgbelt says:

      Not in any particular order either.

    • Jeff says:

      “If we truly derive our understanding of God from Christ alone and not from a priori philosophical reflections upon creation, we would be lead to conclude:

      (c) God is not timeless but temporal,”

      J: I’ve heard Bill Craig claim there are philosophical arguments against an infinite past. I’m not aware of them. Does anybody know what they are? Personally, I can’t yet make sense of a “beginning of time.” So I’m of the current opinion that an infinite past is the default position irrespective of what scripture means and irrespective of whether it’s true.

      • Jeff says:

        “21 To define the “essence” of God in terms of both necessity and contingency, of immutability and mutability, of absoluteness and concreteness is to allow both elements in these pairs to be canceled out by the other, for an essence that is contingent, mutable and concrete cannot be necessary, immutable, and absolute unless God is necessary, immutable and absolute precisely in his contingency, mutability and concreteness.”

        J: I thought “essence” had to do with essential, as opposed to accidental, attributes. So, of course, we don’t attribute essential attributes to God with one hand and then take them back with the other by rendering them accidental after all. The question is, what divine attributes do we posit are essential and accidental such that we can actually explain our experience?

        And the first thing you have to do is to explain how we can distinguish between warranted and unwarranted belief, if indeed you hold that humans are cognitively fallible. This is what neither atheists nor “utter transcendent” theists seem to be able to do. They deny so much of God that God explains nothing, rendering Him out of epistemological business EVEN as a creator per se, never mind as a causal agent that created freely.

        And without a particular kind of Creator, no one seems to be able to conceive of a non-arbitrary way to distinguish between warranted and unwarranted belief. And no one seems to want to admit that they define warranted belief (for the purpose of conventional communication, i.e.) as a species of belief merely made up by arbitrary positing. For to even claim that one can posit arbitrarily as a means to accounting for warranted belief is itself without warrant by that approach since it would require an infinite regress of positing, which is pretty obviously impossible.

        Foundationalism (and by extension, distinguishable warranted belief) of one sort or another is inescapable if both 1) humans are fallible and 2) radical skepticism is impossible to live. And both of those seem pretty obviously true. Seemingly, a certain kind of Creator is somehow inevitably entailed in the full import of our more matured inferences due to our nature (as sentient, inferential, volitional, etc) and the import of our foundational beliefs/categories.

        In short, no one actually lives like the deny too much about God even when, by words, they do deny too much of God.Interestingly, I heard an anti-ID’ist debate an ID’ist admitting that his own view SEEMS to imply deism. The atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel, too, while admitting that he thinks it impossible for a naturalistic world-view to account for the intelligibility of reality, etc, admits that he is sentimentally averse to theism. He doesn’t deny THAT a certain species of theism can account for that intelligibility, etc. In the meanwhile, he has no account of those things since he rules out the requisite species (benevolent, competent, etc) of final causality precisely where it is needed to do the relevant accounting.

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