McCormack’s Barth & Open Theism—Part 2

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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.

McCormack’s Barth & Open Theism—Part 1

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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.

McCormack, Barth and Open Theism

9780801035524In responding to Fr Aidan’s guest post, Kim Fabricious refers to Bruce McCormack’s Chapter 10 in Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Perspectives (Baker, 2008). We summarized Kim’s response to Fr Aidan re: open theism and said we’d like to return at some point in the future with a series of posts that engage McCormack’s chapter more directly. Until we launch that series you may want to familiarize yourself with the chapter in question. It’s a whopping 58 pages, but for the sake of online discussion we’re happy to share a 13 page summary of it here for your convenience. We’ll be back later to discuss it, but you’ll want some time to digest it.

I don’t have the energy to weed out the typos. Sorry. There’s a mistake on the first page (“…of some aspect of aspects” should read “aspect or aspects”). Enjoy!