McCormack’s Barth & Open Theism—Part 2

We’d like to offer an initial response to Bruce McCormack’s Barthian critique of open theism and invite those very familiar with McCormack’s chapter to chime in if they’d like. We previously boiled the chapter down to 21 core points which as we understand them essentially reduce to the claim that Christology is why open theism is false. We’ll consider McCormack’s essential argument in the following 8 points (if proponents of McCormack’s chapter feel we’re missing his point, by all means, let us know):

(1) Christology: The proper methodological starting point. Our understanding of God (and creation, providence, human freedom, etc.) is to be derived from Christ alone (his life, death, and resurrection) independent of any a priori philosophical reflections. Such a Christological methodology entails the following:

(2) God is triune only in his free determination to create and incarnate and thus be God-for-us.
(3) God predetermines all things (and thus foreknows all that will occur).
(4) God’s predetermination of all things is his willing all things within the covenant of grace in Christ.
(5) God is not timeless but temporal.
(6) God is not impassible but passible.
(7) God makes his predetermination of all things effective via divine ‘concursus’ (the ‘cooperation’ by which God’s ‘Word’ and ‘Spirit’ bring about God’s will in/through creaturely occurrence).

One further claim McCormack makes (along purely philosophical and not Christological lines in agreement with Bill Craig’s well-known arguments) is:

(8) Free choice isn’t incompatible with foreknowledge (because knowledge of X doesn’t cause X).

As we understand the flow of his argument, McCormack’s presentation of Barth’s position doesn’t constitute an argument per se against open theism as much as it seeks to demonstrate that open theism isn’t needed because all it seeks to achieve (a relational God passibly engaging a genuinely free world) is secured by Barth’s doctrine of God’s predetermination of all things in the pre-creational election of Christ as the self-constituting act by which God determines to be (the triune) God-for-us. All that open theists seek in their rejection of classical theism can be had in Barth without having to deny exhaustive(ly definite) foreknowledge.

What might open theists say in response? First, let’s grant (5) and (6) for the sake of argument and get them out of the way. Open theists can certainly grant the truth of (5) (even if in a carefully qualified sense) and can grant the passibilism of (6) as fully as any passiblist on the planet (even if an open theist need not endorse divine passibilism).

Second, for the sake of argument we will set aside our personal disagreement with (2) as well as with McCormack’s methodological position regarding natural theology or appeal to a priori philosophical reflection in (1). So we’ll grant (1) and (2). But here there’s nothing obviously incompatible with, or entailed by, (1) and (2) that is incompatible with open theism. With (2) an open theist could agree that God is triune only in his free self-determination to be God-for-us in Christ (i.e., the open theist could deny or qualify belief in the ‘logos asarkos’ in all the ways McCormack/Barth complain that this concept relies upon illegitimate a priori philosophical reflection). Indeed, we can think of a few open theists we know who are inclined to express their doctrine of God in precisely such terms. Furthermore, with (1) an open theist could agree to a strictly Christological methodology (McCormack’s main beef with open theists — it’s not Christological enough) without obviously having to deny her open theism or run into implications of this methodology which are incompatible with open theism.

McCormack-B-EJDbooks-473x314Third, what McCormack does not do in his chapter — the one thing we were expecting him to do — is show us precisely how it is that making Christ (the events of Christ’s life, death and resurrection) one’s methodology for assessing the claims at stake in this debate leads to the truth of (3) (which obviously contradicts open theism). As far as we can tell, (3), (4) and (7) don’t follow necessarily from (1) and (2). How does one get the truth of (3) (God’s predetermination of all things) from the commitment to make Christ one’s sole methodology? What is there in the event of Christ’s life or his teachings that demonstrates the truth of (3)? Or how is (3) entailed in anything one commits to in committing to such a Christ-centered methodology? McCormack never says. Our suspicion is that the truth of (3) is incorporated from elsewhere. And (4) and (7) are only true if (3) is true.

That leaves us, lastly, with (8). And the surprise here is that in discussing the compatibility of free acts with foreknowledge of those acts, McCormack doesn’t assess the debate over this question exclusively in terms of anything uniquely Christological. He simply buys Craig’s arguments re: compatibility (never mind that Craig grants this compatibility only with respect to libertarian choices and as a Molinist, not choices predetermined by the will of God—but let that go). Point is, the truth of (8) doesn’t follow from (1); that is, (8) isn’t a Christological given. McCormack in fact adopts the “irrefutability” of (8) as a matter of philosophical reflection (following Craig)!

Of course open theists have had much to say about this logic (as have many non-open theists, even Calvinists who, though not libertarian, agree that foreknowledge of libertarian choices is not possible). We won’t offer a defense of incompatibilism here, except to say (in response to Craig) that no incompatiblist has ever objected to the compatibility of foreknowledge and free acts on the grounds that a ‘causal’ relationship would therefore exist between the ‘foreknowing’ of free choices and the actual choices in question. But conceding this much unfortunately does nothing to demonstrate the truth of the compatibilist’s claim or obviate the issue pressed by the incompatibilist.

McCormack can disagree with the incompatibilist philosophically if he wishes, but there’s nothing uniquely Christological on his side, and Christology was supposed to be what his chapter was about. Of course, if (8) is true, then as McCormack says the case for open theism is dead in the water independent of Christology. But if one has reasons to hold to incompatibilism, then (3), (4) and (7) are equally false however true (1) and (2) may be. And an open theist could of course disagree with McCormack on (1) and (2), but she doesn’t need to do so in order to maintain open theism against (3), (4), (7) and (8). What McCormack needed to show but didn’t is how (3) is entailed in (1) or (2).

In the end, it may be true that open theists are not adequately mindful of Christology and so have not grounded their claims in a commitment to build their doctrine of God Christologically from the inside out. But it doesn’t follow from this that the determinism of McCormack’s/Barth’s Christology is the only valid shape which such a methodology must take.

Open for business.

3 comments on “McCormack’s Barth & Open Theism—Part 2

  1. Alan Rhoda says:

    A well stated critique, Tom. As you note, (3) is the nub of it. But (3) doesn’t even remotely follow from (1) and (2). A lot of extra unstated assumptions are necessary to make that argument work.

    Perhaps open theists haven’t given Christology its full due, but I don’t think any Christian open theists would *deny* the central importance of Christology for our understanding of God. To the extent that Christology bear on open theism at all, open theists like myself believe that open theism is, if not *supported by* a robust Christology then at least *consistent with* it.


  2. tgbelt says:

    Thanks Alan! I’d like to come back later with a reference to Henri Blocher’s chapter 7 in that same book. He has some good things to say about what follows regarding God from the fact that God incarnates as Christ.


  3. tgbelt says:

    In the event we get around to calling upon Henri Blocher’s Ch. 7.


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