What difference can passibilism really make?

Just thinking out loud on this one. I’m running through models/scenarios trying to make good on passibilist conceptions of divine suffering that avoid key objections passibilists commonly make to non-passibilist views of God. I can’t get it to work. I’m unable to conceive of a passibilist model of divine suffering that really delivers. So let me describe the models I’m thinking through for comment. Mind you, I’m working through these in non-apophatic, non-traditional terms (because that’s a given for passibilist theologians). That is, heavy on univocity and anthropocentrism and light on transcendence and apophatic qualification.

First, consider a contrast that I think any passibilist has to deal with in understanding aesthetic experience in general and divine suffering in particular. The contrast is between experience which is  integrated (synthesized) or segregated (non-integrated). I’ll try to describe what I’m getting at and if you have better terms, suggest them. With a segregated (non-integrated) divine experience, no divine experience of any subject is affected or shaped or otherwise determined by any other experience God is having of any other created subject. God experiences each subject in its subjectivity and appreciates its pleasure or suffering without integrating or synthesizing that experience with any other creaturely experience God is on the inside of to yield a single, overall, consummate aesthetic experience. Thus each non-divine subject affects God fully, as if there were no other created subjects God was experiencing.

On the other hand, an integrated (synthesized) divine experience of all our discrete, individual experiences would yield a single, undivided aesthetic experience to which all created subjective experiences would contribute their “meaning” or “difference they make.” They would by definition be experienced by God as relatively pleasing or displeasing given the overall, consummate determinations of all the experiences God would be having.

With this distinction made, let me describe passibilism in terms of each and ask whether either is capable of avoiding its own objections to non-passibilist models.

(1) Segregated (non-integrated) divine aesthetic experiences of the world.
Here discrete occasions of creaturely joy and suffering are each experienced fully and non-relatively by God. There is no ‘overall’ divine aesthetic experience which integrates all the world’s joys and suffering into a single aesthetic valuation for God. On this view God has no consummate experience of the world’s joys and sufferings.

This is the strong passibilism I described in the comments section elsewhere. Here God experiences every instance of suffering fully and without existential refuge (we might say) via integration. The depth of divine feeling for each particular occasion of evil or suffering is not alleviated or qualified by other experiences God is having. This is the passibilism that objects to God being happy on some level when Zosia is having her eyes plucked out or when a tsunami sweeps 100,000 lives away in a day. Here you meet with the standard passibilist objection that it’s morally objectionable for God to be happy on such occasions or in the presence of suffering persons. God’s being love must mean God is shaped/determined by our pain and this divine suffering must have a depth and intensity equal or proportionate to the human experience given the human perspective.

In response I would suggest that this is not a passibilism that can deliver the kind of divine suffering that overcomes its own objections to non-passibilist models, for it would remain the case on this construal of divine passibilism that while Zosia is having her eyes plucked out over ‘here’, God is experiencing some joy over ‘there’ which is not defined, shaped or relativized by Zosia’s suffering. True, God is feeling Zosia’s suffering from the inside, even to a depth and intensity Zosia cannot experience given her finite capacities. But it remains the case on this non-integrated view of divine experience that God is elsewhere, existentially speaking, sharing the inexpressible joy of some beautiful experience that Zosia’s suffering simply does not touch or qualify (precisely the sort of thing passibilists object to). Here God is able to so segregate or partition his capacity for aesthetic experience as to offer every individual an opportunity to determine the divine experience as if there were no other individuals God had to experience (something like the aesthetic equivalent to Greg’s infinite intelligence argument).

Besides the philosophical problems of arguing for such segregation, the passibilist objection to impassibilism would hold for this passibilist model. There would be that joy in God which was not defined by the Christmas Day Tsunami that swept through Sri Lanka. God would be in possession of delights unaffected by occasions of creaturely suffering. But passibilists are on record as believing this to be morally objectionable. It would be less than benevolent, even wrong, of God to be happy on some level while we experience horrible suffering. There must be nothing to God’s divine experience which is not affected by our pain. That’s what strong passibilists require, and it’s what this model cannot deliver.

N31-960x727(2) Integrated (synthesized) divine aesthetic experience of the world.
Given the failure of the above non-integrated model, let’s consider an integrated model. On this understanding, discrete instances of creaturely joy and suffering are integrated into a single, indivisible aesthetic divine appreciation/valuation. Here all the world’s sufferings and joys would be relativized within the divine experience, yielding a consummate divine aesthetic experience of the world. God’s overall aesthetic experience would just be the synthesized unity of all the world’s sufferings and joys, the difference of an equation (all worldly joys minus all worldly sorrows equaling the felt quality of God’s undivided experience).

In this case God’s experience of Zosia’s suffering is itself affected by, shaped by, God’s experience of all other creaturely experiences, including supremely joyous ones. How happy God is over some act of unselfish love over ‘here’ would itself shape, or make a difference to, how sorrowful God is because of Zosia over ‘there’. All created experiences would affect God, but their felt affect in God would be their assimilated contribution to God’s overall consummate aesthetic experience. If there are many more occasions of good and joy in the world than of bad, God would be overall elated. In Genesis six, for example, presumably God was overall extremely affected negatively.

Can this model deliver the passibilst the kind of suffering God the passibilist wants? Given passibilist objections to non-passibilist approaches, no. For though we have here a passible God (indeed, a God who is only as happy as the world allows God to be), and one whose experience fully integrates the world’s discrete joys and sorrows (making it philosophically much preferable to segregated/non-integrated passibilism), it remains the case on this view that God’s experience of any particular joy or sorrow would always be an act of consummate integration with every other experience God is having. This is a problem for the passibilist given her standard objections, because it very well might be that when some horrible injustice occurs, God’s overall experience remains unspeakably blissful. God would not be “pissed off” (as one passibilist insists God must be in the face of some injustice). But as should be clear, this would be subject to the passibilist’s own objection to impassibilism, namely, that it is morally objectionable for God be inexpressibly happy while some horrible pain or injustice is occurring. And the same objection would hold regarding God’s delight in created joys and goods. It might be that some wonderful act of benevolence makes God far less happy than he otherwise would be were it not for a tsunami in Asia. Given passibilist objections, however, it should be as morally objectionable that God not be fully appreciative of created joys as that he not be determined by created sorrows.

It seems, then, that if God’s experience is passibilist in the sense that every created joy and sorrow contributes to a single, integrated/synthesized aesthetic experience, then God doesn’t experience any single occasion of evil or of good as he might otherwise experience it were that occasion all God had to invest himself in emotionally, and this ends up offending passibilist sensibilities. The joy which God and heaven feel over my child’s coming to faith, for example, would be greater than it in fact is were it not for another father’s child having died of cancer. And God’s sorrow over the death of this child is not as deeply felt as it would otherwise be were it not for the emotional investment God is having to make in rejoicing with me over my child. On this integrated view, then, God may have been overall inexpressibly happy when Zosia got her eyes plucked out. Who knows? It would depend ‘on balance’ on how well the world was doing at the time, and only God can know that. But the integrated passibilist here would have to content herself with the ambiguity and accept that it may be that God’s actual experience of Zosia’s suffering is less impacted negatively than it might be had she suffered a month earlier or a year later. God may in actuality be inexpressibly happy when Zosia suffers inexpressible pain. On the other hand, God may be (overall) extremely sorrowful in his integration of some very great and victorious good that just occurred just in case on the whole God was vastly more invested in a world overrun with evil. Neither case gets the passibilist what she wants.

Consider this as well. It’s quite possible, given this second, integrated option that there are people in the world right now who are happier than God, for we cannot integrate all the world’s suffering as God does. Given the amount of suffering in the world, God’s overall ‘feeling’ may in fact be pretty depressed. But the world at the same time may be filled with people whose experience is exclusively overwhelmed with reasons for joy. So at any given point in time, there are likely people in the world who are, comparatively speaking, happier than God. As I write this, I’m afraid there are Christian believers the survival of whose faith actually requires this to be the case.

Lastly, we’ve said nothing here about what would happen if God were believed to contribute his own triune resources to his overall felt quality of experience. If one goes with Hartshorne here, God cannot have Godself as the datum of his own experience. God’s concrete experience is just the synthesized union of all created experiences. But one could argue (as Greg Boyd does in Trinity & Process, in basic agreement with the Tradition) that God’s existence is essentially and necessarily an experience of the triune persons and as such God would have himself as the datum of his own aesthetic experience necessarily antecedent to his experience of the world. That would certainly effect the passibilist/impassibilist debate (as we’ve tried to show). We’ll take this up in closing things out with Alan.

(Paintings by Anastas Konstantinov here and here.)

An open apatheia?

16_Dorrien_FIG1Back on Oct 5th I posted a link to a guest post I made to Fr Aidan’s Eclectic Orthodoxy. As a shared blog post the entirety of the post wasn’t available here. And since I’m trying to gather together all the content of our posts for a ‘save’, I’ve removed that Oct 5th ‘shared link’ and am reposting it here in its entirety. It appears at Eclectic Orthodoxy as The Good News of Apatheia, or Why God Doesn’t Need to be Unhappy Just Because We Are. Nothing new or changed. It’s just readable in its entirety here now as well. (Comments also reposted).


The Good News of Apatheia, or Why God Doesn’t Need to be Unhappy Just Because We Are
I’m delighted to be invited to celebrate two years of Fr Aidan’s very fine blog contributions to the life and theology of Christian believers far and wide. Fr Aidan and I met online a few years back discussing theological issues. We remain friends today, and I’m grateful for the wonderful way the Internet has enlarged the circle of conversations like these.

I’ve been asked to describe some of the journey that led me to embrace divine apatheia (as I view it at least). Now, if I were Orthodox you might stop reading right here because there’s nothing unusual about an Orthodox believer thinking God’s essential happiness is neither improved upon nor diminished by anything that happens in the world. But I’m not Orthodox. I’m Evangelical. And worse still, I’m an open theist. Quite the fish out of water over here! And I’m well aware of the complexities involved in the (im)passibilism debate, but I don’t intend here to enter into anything like a detailed defense of my position. I can only summarize the thinking that has over the past few years focused my interests eastward upon the debated notion of apatheia and why I’ve come to value it as I do.

I was drawn to open theism from day one (more than twenty years ago now). I became acquainted with several of its prominent writers and engaged in regular and extensive conversation. I didn’t embrace it immediately but gave myself several years to explore the pro’s and con’s. Eventually the pro’s won out. I won’t unpack these here since this post isn’t about open theism, but given the strongly passibilist view of divine vulnerability open theists are known for, you can appreciate where I’m coming from and why coming to embrace apatheia is so surprising.

I remember the moment I decided in earnest to explore the Fathers. I was in the first chapter of Denys Turner’s Silence and the Word, especially interested in his comments on Pseudo-Denys. I recall the appearance of a question that seemed to announce its arrival without invitation: “What if?” What if there’s something to this? I can summarize the positive effect this question has had upon my life in a single word — apatheia. No doubt this is an unusual claim for an open theist to make. It’s clear that I don’t endorse as essential to open theism the passibilism popularly associated with the view. But this may also raise questions for Orthodox readers, because there are features of classical theism I reject (e.g., actus purus as absolute immutability void of all unrealized potential) which I don’t view as essential to apatheia in spite of their being popularly associated with the view.

Several years into this now, I’m more invested in a vision of the fullness of God’s triune being as undiminished delight and joy than I am in open theism’s defining claim about God’s knowledge and future contingents (as important as open theism is to me). I do not mean to say I find apatheia to be ‘more true’ than open theism. I only mean that I find apatheia to be ‘more fundamental’ in the sense that it impinges most directly and immediately upon my deepest experience and perception of myself in God’s presence, upon the most intimate act by which I fundamentally ‘am’ at all. Open theism on the other hand follows only as an observation of the kind of world I believe we must be living in if this experience of God is truly the case. I’m close to believing, however, that if something very like apatheia isn’t true, we’re all screwed anyhow (pardon my French) and it wouldn’t matter what sort of world we lived in – open, closed, determined; take your pick.

For the record, I’m not particularly hung up on the word apatheia. I’d be happy to give it up if the consensus was that the term entails those features of classical theism I reject. “Equanimity” works equally well. As you read this you’ll see that what I’m describing doesn’t entail the view that God is either unfeeling or insensitive, that he doesn’t experience changing states of mind (as he knows the changing truth about the temporal world) or isn’t open to his will for us being frustrated. Let me emphasize also that it was not through any conversation with Greek philosophical commitments that I came to appreciate God’s triune life as unimprovable and undiminished beatitude. I found all I needed elsewhere and independent of the Orthodox sources that I came to appreciate later. One helpful source in this regard was (Christian philosopher and open theist) Richard Creel’s Divine Impassibility (1986). His chapter on impassibility of feeling helped tremendously. I can’t recommend it enough. The five principles of Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy were instrumental as well. But by far the more decisive source of my convictions along this line has been Gregory Boyd. He was hugely instrumental in my journey eastward. As passionately as Boyd promotes a fully passibilist view of God today, it was his earlier work (Trinity & Process, 1992), critically engaging Charles Hartshorne’s Process metaphysics, that gave me contemporary categories for conceiving of God’s “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction” (quite a mouthful) and confirmed what I eventually saw in Orthodoxy. Take for example a few of Boyd’s conclusions in Trinity & Process:

“God’s being is defined by God’s eternal disposition to delight in Godself and the eternal actualization of this disposition within the triune life of God. It is the unsurpassable intensity of the beauty of the divine sociality – their shared love ‘to an infinite degree’….” (my emphasis)

“God’s infinite and complete antecedent actuality can be understood most fundamentally as the unsurpassable intensity of an aesthetic satisfaction. [W]e can conceive of this One’s antecedent actual existence—viz., God’s self-defining aesthetic delight—as being unsurpassable, self-sufficient, and as being ‘unconditioned’ and independent of the world.” (my emphasis)

“…God’s essential and necessary existence is…most basically defined by the unsurpassable intensity of aesthetic enjoyment which characterizes the triune sociality of God. God experiences Godself with an intensity which can under no circumstances conceivably be improved upon. As with Hartshorne, we are here most fundamentally defining God’s transcendence in terms of God’s aesthetic satisfaction.” (my emphasis)

These are not statements you will hear from Boyd these days, but you can hardly mistake the Orthodoxy of his essential point. Interestingly, he didn’t abandon this view of God’s necessary-essential fullness to become an open theist. He was an open theist when he made these statements. Consider this as well:

“The metaphysical necessity of God’s self-relationality means, I believe, that it is not possible to conceive of the death of the Son as anything other than an expression of the intense love of God’s inner life….[T]his means that all talk about a ‘breakdown of the relationship that constitutes the very life of the Trinity’ such as we find (for example) in Moltmann is, if taken literally, strictly impossible….”

The smelling salts are in the cabinet.treasure_in_jars_of_clay_by_saireba-d4pjkw2

If you follow Boyd at all (perhaps most here do not), you’ll know how very contrary these earlier (1992) statements of his are to his present position (which on this question is indistinguishable from that of Moltmann). In any case, for me the similarities between Trinity & Process and Orthodoxy (without ignoring their differences) were uncanny. Greg’s “…the unsurpassable intensity of the beauty of the divine sociality” sounded awfully like Augustine’s perfectissima pulchritude et beatissima delectatio (“the most perfect beauty and the most blessed delight”). And for both of these God’s self-constituting triune delight is fully actual and unconditioned by the world. Without engaging the Fathers at all, Boyd had confirmed an essential insight of the Church’s traditional view of God — not only is God essentially and fully triune and the world radically contingent and unnecessary, but what accounts for this is the infinite delight (or, unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction) of God’s triune actuality, a satisfaction Boyd argued “is neither increased nor diminished by the contingent and temporal affairs of this world.” What Boyd went on to miss entirely were the Christological and soteriological implications, but that’s another story, and unfortunately Boyd has not continued to view transcendence in these terms.

Be that as it may, I stepped into the wider patristic conversation and became familiar with testimonies of saints and others whose sufferings were defined by this transcendent joy. Eventually I chose (alas, one must choose) to relate to myself and relate myself to God within the truth of God’s delight. I can’t recommend the experience highly enough. I do find this, however, to be particularly difficult for those with a more analytic disposition (like me) to accept. Its truth isn’t exactly propositionally demonstrable, though it generates no contradiction. No syllogism will get you there. One must choose to relate to God and one’s self within a framework of meaning shaped by a delight that does not depend upon us for its fulfillment. And the choice to define myself in terms of God’s infinite delight continues to be painful work, at least for me, because every false self in me demands a recognition and significance which divine freedom of this sort will not provide.

Some have objected to imagining God to be “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction” on grounds that it turns God into the worst kind of narcissist. I can’t take this criticism seriously because the kind of delight I’m describing is too easily conceived in emotionally healthy terms. God’s beatitude does not preoccupy him or leave him so self-absorbed with his own beauty that he either doesn’t notice us or, if he notices, he has no regard for our well-being. Quite the opposite. Another objection to imagining God as unimprovably happy is summarized by Ronald Goetz (Christian Century, 1986): “My own view is that the death of God’s Christ is in part God’s atonement to his creatures for evil.” God suffers our pain and evil to pay a debt he owes for creating a world that became so hideously overrun with evil and suffering. In a real sense it is God who is redeemed, God who gets reconciled to us. Here passibilism becomes a cure worse than the disease.

Not long ago I was asked to imagine one of my children screaming out in the night, something most parents experience. You run to your daughter’s side and find her half-awake, trapped inside a nightmare. She cries out, “Daddy! There’s a monster chasing me!” What do you say? Do you say, “Run faster, Hunny! Faster!” or perhaps “Hide behind a tree or under the staircase!”? Do you confirm the reality of her nightmare in this way? Of course not. But perhaps you begin to pace the floor believing that you are threatened and alone as well. Will that help her? Certainly not. Here’s what you do. You hold her in your arms and say, “It’s alright my love. Daddy is here! Don’t be afraid,” and you gently rock her in your arms until her reality conforms to your reality, until your reality defines her reality by putting the lie to her nightmare. And even if you had to enter her nightmare (one way to imagine the Incarnation), you still save her from her nightmare by exposing it as false, not by letting it falsify in you the very experience she needs to awaken from her nightmare.

IMG_3515Just this last weekend I observed a young family enjoying a picnic. I watched one of the toddlers, a daughter, fall and scrape her knee. Unable to world-construct outside her pain, she let the entire park know of her suffering. Her father? As you might expect, his response didn’t include the slightest discomfort or loss of happiness. He turned to his daughter, moved in her direction, and with a big smile called her name and held out his arms. Why not meet her level of experienced suffering with some measure of suffering of his own? After all, love suffers when those loved suffer, right? Where’s the father’s suffering here? Shouldn’t he feel some slight dip in happiness? Some measurable loss of “aesthetic satisfaction”? We all know the answer is no, and we know why. He doesn’t suffer in the slightest because of his perspective on her suffering (assessing its consequences relative to what he believes to be her highest good and well-being).

What about other more serious instances of suffering? What about permanent disability? What happens with betrayal or torture? What happens with the chronic pain of a losing battle with cancer? What happens is that what we believe to be our highest good and well-being gets revealed. Let’s at least grant that much. And it’s precisely here where I invite myself to examine what I believe to be the highest good and well-being of creation and to consider what it would mean to world-construct within the framework of its truth. The question is, What do we identify as our ‘highest good’? More to the point, What is the summum bonum, that supreme and absolute good/value by which all other relative goods and values are measured? I suggest that passibilists are committed to locating the summum bonum outside the beatitude of God’s triune actuality since they admit this very actuality suffers deprivation, and it is good and beautiful and right that it suffer. But what makes it good and beautiful and right? What actual good measures the loss of divine beatitude to be good and beautiful? Indeed, what actual good can be the absolute value which establishes the relative value and goodness of all contingent experiences? It can only be the non-contingent beatitude of God’s own triune actuality (as Boyd had argued on his own over 20 years ago). This is precisely where passibilist kenoticists redefine the summum bonum as something other than God’s own triune actuality, and that is a position I’m unable to embrace. In what do they suppose this absolute value to obtain? I can’t say, but my guess is they would insist it include them.

Let me wind things down. In the end the philosophical problems of a fully reciprocal passibilism, widespread within open theism, in which God’s happiness is a ‘negotiated happiness’, the difference of an equation (‘reasons for rejoicing’ minus ‘reasons for grieving’ = God’s state of mind), proved to be too much. At the same time, the biblical plausibility of such a view of transcendence strengthened my confidence as well. Transcendence as apatheia (as David Hart has expressed it) or as God’s “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction” (as Boyd earlier defined it) is no mere philosophical construct. It can be biblically discerned. Whatever evils we suffer, God remains that which one day shall render all worldly sufferings comparatively meaningless (Rom 8:18’s “sufferings not worth comparing to the glory that shall be revealed in us”). But I urge you to ponder what it is about God to which earthly sufferings are not comparable. If no present suffering can possibly compare to the joy that shall be ours upon seeing God, what joy must presently be God’s who always perceives his own glorious beauty? And if the glory which God now is shall transcend all our sufferings in our experience of him in resurrection, what can these sufferings presently be to God who always and already is this glory in its fullness? Pondering Rom 8, I asked myself, “Is the divine nature itself subject to ‘decay’ and ‘groaning’ as well? Does God ‘await glorification’ along with us?” If not, then what must God’s present experience be? And must not this experience be that about God which renders the entirety of the world’s suffering comparatively meaningless? Passibilism just stopped making sense to me — biblically, philosophically, and existentially. I came to the conclusion that God is our eschatological hope because God is the eschaton.

To me this is the Good News. Others may wish or feel they need it to be otherwise, or they may feel the Cross a charade unless divinity is reduced to its horror. But I suspect this perspective is a nightmare from which we need desperately to be awoken. And the truth that has the power to awaken us is revealed in the Cross: Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ because nothing can separate God from himself in Christ. The Cross doesn’t establish our separation and abandonment as a truth which God is or which he becomes. Rather, it exposes our separation and abandonment as myths, phantoms of the night, mere nightmares from which we awake to find (to possess) ourselves in the embrace of a delight that has always been the truest thing about us. Thank you Athanasius. Thank you Cyril. Thank you Chalcedon.

I have overstayed my welcome. Forgive the length, and let me thank Fr Aidan for the undeserved invitation to share a bit of my story and wish Eclectic Orthodoxy a very apathetic (!) second birthday. I leave you (shamelessly) with some final thoughts of my own adapted from elsewhere:

“The gratuity of creation is the grace of the gospel. But you only get that kind of absolute gratuity if God is, correspondingly, absolutely full. And grace that is this gracious, absolutely gracious, is hard because we want to be needed, not just wanted. But the only kind of wanting we know (despairing creatures that we are) is that wanting which is needing. That’s how we want. Imagine the existential rush that follows from believing that God wants you this way, i.e., because your existence fulfills him. Your existence can’t mean anything better than that. And so we weave into our narratives of redemption the fiction that God must be lonely without us, or diminished by our sorrow, or injured by our rejection, or ultimately perfected by our final glorification. But in recognizing God as a delighting love we can neither diminish nor improve, these self-serving dysfunctions and narratives are deconstructed and in their place we experience ‘his joy as our strength’ (Neh. 8.10) and come to possess ourselves in ‘an unspeakable and glorious joy’ as Peter wrote (1Pet. 1.8), ‘receiving the salvation of our souls’.”

(Pictures here and here.)

Praying the open view: providential contours


In addition to embracing a pragmatic/practical approach to evaluating ‘adequacy claims’, open theists also construct their understanding of prayer upon three core theological convictions:

  • love with respect to purpose
  • freedom with respect to agency
  • risk with respect to outcomes

One can see almost immediately how these would inform why and how open theists pray. And since they have been defended at length by open theists elsewhere, I only briefly summarize them here so we have them in mind as we move on to consider their effects upon our understanding of petitionary prayer. In addition to these convictions, I’ve commented on three additional commitments I believe they imply.

(1) Love: The divine purpose for creation
All open theists share the conviction that “God is love” constrains both our understanding of God’s being and self-relatedness on the one hand of the nature of creation and God’s purposes on the other. Whatever else open theists might go on to conclude about the God-world relationship, it proceeds from the fundamental conviction that God is love and that God’s relationship to creation is defined, motivated, and directed by love. We are created to be and live as one in him, knowing and reflecting the triune love.

(2) Freedom: the necessary context for creaturely love
It is the metaphysics of our becoming loving persons which necessitates libertarian freedom. Very much has been said (philosophically and theologically) on the possibility of libertarian free will. Once God determines to purpose us for loving relations with God and others, endowing us with an appropriate capacity to determine ourselves is the metaphysical price-tag. We must freely become what we are purposed by God to be. Again, this is not the place to defend arguments already popular. I’m exploring only how these core convictions shape an open theist’s understanding and practice of petitionary prayer.

(3) Risk: The implications of freedom
If love requires freedom, what does freedom entail? It entails ‘risk’. And so the reality of ‘risk’ becomes the third in a trinity of convictions that inform open theism’s view on prayer. The existence of creaturely freedom has important consequences for the God-world relation — for the world because freedom constitutes the indeterminacy which open theists argue is incompatible with exhaustively definite foreknowledge, and for God because such freedom is also incompatible with it being the case that God can always guarantee that his will is fulfilled.

However, divine risk is a complex issue and is not understood and applied uniformly by open theists. All agree that there is genuine ‘risk’ in the sense that the fulfillment of divine purposes is sometime conditional upon the free agency of creatures. Certainly there are grave risks. But not all risks, arguably, can apply to God who by definition cannot take metaphysical risks. And open theists are not all in agreement on what counts as the sort of metaphysical risks God cannot take. What Dwayne and I understand by ‘divine risk-taking’ is simply the conditionality of the fulfillment of God’s purposes. That is, we may be at some risk, and the fulfillment of many of God’s purposes may be at risk. But God cannot be at risk. Differences among open theists on these points, however, do not (we think) affect our understanding of petitionary prayer as a means by which open theists freely partner with God in shaping themselves and the world as God desires.

The belief that divine providence is compatible with divine risk-taking even in the minimal sense just noted, however, does have serious consequences for our approach to prayer. There may be occasions when we pray as we ought and God responds to secure some end, and still the desired outcome may fail to actualize because of factors outside the determination of God and those praying. The shock which this claim alone has had upon objectors to open theism is well-documented, and yet there is no getting around it. On the open view, God does not get everything God wants or aims to achieve even when we pray and intercede as faithfully as we may and God acts in the interest of achieving some end, and yet this does not empty prayer as a meaningful and effective means by which God brings his will to pass. What possible factors outside our prayers and God’s response would combine to make this the case? The answer open theists have given is that there are more factors determining outcomes than just our praying and God’s favorably responding.

(4) Rules of engagement: the creational variables
What sort of conditions would obtain if the world is in fact the sort of place where God can act with a view to bringing about some desired state and that state fail to obtain? And does this not decimate any hope that prayer is efficacious? Boyd begins his answer by appealing to the multifaceted nature of the conditions or “creational variables” under which we live and pray. We might say these constitute “rules of engagement” sovereignly established by God to see the world through to its fulfilled end.

What interfaces between a predictably loving God and the complexities of an unpredictable and fallen world that might account for the occasional failure of God’s will? Boyd represents open theists in general when he suggests that we understand God’s sustaining presence within creation to be guided by conditions God freely set in place when he created, the integrity of which he honors in the bringing of creation to its fulfilled purpose. The entire project of creation is thus providentially governed in its becoming from beginning to end by overarching loving purposes and a corresponding free and risky context appropriate to their fulfillment. These creational variables are this context, including our natural capacities, the integrity of our freedom and its consequences, the capacities of the physical universe to behave freely, angelic wills which may be, and other factors we may have no understanding of. Several of these can be known by us, but there’s no reason to think we have an exhaustive understanding of all the relevant variables. However, one creational variable, open theists believe, is prayer. Prayer (or the lack of it) is one of the influencing factors which constitute the totality of relations that determine outcomes on any specific occasion, but it is not the only factor. This is at the heart of what makes faith and prayer both comforting and frustrating.

(5) Consequent ambiguity: letting go the need to know
Once we posit a universe of intersecting and sometimes competing divine, angelic, and human wills, together with genuine risk and warfare under a myriad of creational factors we cannot comprehend, we have an entirely different approach to the problem of an evil world and our place in it. We can know that for any given evil, God, being perfectly loving, always does all God can do to maximize good and minimize evil, but we also know that given the metaphysics of freedom and risk, how much good God is able to actualize on any given occasion is conditioned by these creational factors. Thus, we can never know enough about the complexities of creation and the contributing factors that determine specific outcomes to judge precisely which variables played which determining roles. Consequently the world presents us with a good deal of ambiguity, not with respect to the divine character or intention (which open theists insist is loving and good), but with respect to the intersecting creational variables.

Open theists generally admit that God can and does on occasion guarantee outcomes. They also generally admit that God can and does on occasion make compatibilistic use of evil. Consequently, given our ignorance of the complexities and the hidden variables, we are consigned to ambiguity regarding specifics. We can never know whether some specific evil was opposed by God as such, given all the variables that are part of any event in the world, or whether God was specifically permitting or making use of agents in their evil intentions in a larger attempt to minimize evil and maximize good in the world. We must wean ourselves of the need to know and therefore of our tendency to judge.

(6) Consequent assurances: learning to rest
This ambiguity just considered relates to creation, however, and not to God’s character or his loving purposes. We can never comprehend the totality of divine and creational influences under the rules of engagement established by God, but we may, Boyd encourages, enjoy profound assurances. First, we may know that God always does all God can do given his purposes and the context in which God finds himself, to maximize good and minimize evil in the world. Here “all God can do” does not equal something like “flex all the muscle God has” or “exercise all the power God possesses.” It rather means God always exhausts all the available avenues for achieving his highest glory and the good and perfection of creation within the constraints he freely put in place to achieve the desired relationship with creation. Within this context, God does all he can to maximize good and minimize evil. That is his nature.

A second assurance is that however grave may be our suffering, however at a loss for an adequate explanation of the place our prayers have in shaping things, we rest in the confidence that God is resourceful enough to redeem our circumstances when we cooperate with him (Rm. 8.28-29). There is no horror so great that God cannot redeem good and beauty from it. God is always redemptively engaged in every occasion seeking to bring about the highest good and most loving state of affairs.

A third assurance we have in a risk-filled world is in the entrusting of our souls to God. With respect to our final state and our eternal enjoyment of God’s presence, we have an unconditional divine guarantee that those who trust God cannot possibly be disappointed whatever else may occur in this life.

With these convictions in mind, we’ll try to move on to what open theists have said about the what, why and how of petitionary prayer.

(Picture here.)

Praying the open view: adequacy claims

smoke“The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.” (Rev 8.4)

It’s no secret that Dwayne and I like conversations that wade out into the speculative and the theoretical. But that can get a bit wearisome (can I get an ‘Amen’?). A less speculative aspect of the debate over open theism has to do with its practical effects, something both open theists and objectors use to argue their respective positions. My graduate studies took me in this direction and I ended up proposing a thesis toward an open theistic theology of petitionary prayer. It’s less accessible than your average blog post, so I’d like to break down a few of the more important points.

Prayer is the primary existential stage upon which any theology may be examined and judged. Given the open theist’s core claims, how are we to understand the purposes and place of petitionary prayer? If one cannot divorce the question of what God is like from the question of how we pray, then open theism’s proffered revision of aspects of the traditional view of God is most relevant and deserves continued and rigorous consideration. In focusing on the implications which open theism has for our understanding of prayer, we bring belief to bear upon one of the most practical every-day concerns of religious persons and thus have an opportunity to judge the existential case for open theism.

Open theists have claimed that their views of the God-world relationship provide a religiously adequate basis upon which to live life, more specifically that the open view makes best sense of petitionary prayer as an act by which believers freely participate in fulfilling God’s purposes through shaping themselves and the world. Treating the ‘practical’ or ‘existential’ pros and cons of believing in something is not a simple task. There are several moving pieces. In this first in a series on petitionary prayer, I’d like to reflect upon the nature and difficulty of adequacy claims.

People inevitably want to know what relevance a belief has for their day to day concerns. What difference does it make? is ultimately the question believers put to theological issues. And where believers fail to see the practical relevance such questions have for life’s relationships, decisions, etc., they fail to engage those issues for any length of time. Opponents of open theism have claimed that the effects of the open view are ruinous and will inevitably shipwreck faith in God for those who embrace it (concrete examples in upcoming posts). Open theists on the other hand have argued precisely the opposite, that their views make better sense of our existential intuitions, provide a better existential fit, and that of all the available views of providence on the market, that espoused by open theists is already assumed in practice by the manner in which Christian believers actually live their lives.

Adequacy claims reducible to personal preference?
The underlying question regards the relationship between ‘faith’ and ‘praxis’, i.e., how we relate what we believe about God and the God-world relationship to the practical concerns of daily life. Theology matters, so all theists seem to agree, and open theists have confidently made ‘adequacy claims’ about the practical advantages of their beliefs. At the same time, opponents equally object to the open view on existential grounds, insisting that the view undermines one’s confidence and trust in God, God’s word, and God’s ability to achieve his purposes. The existential matrix (the inter-relating intuitions, a priori beliefs about the world, experiences, decision-making processes, etc.) by which we evaluate the truth of a claim is a complex and fallible guide.

Think about what sort of question we are dealing with. When one argues that a belief is best believed to be true (or not) because of the practical effects of believing it, a particular sort of claim is being made, one that is notoriously difficult to evaluate. Professor of religion Christopher Heard has attempted to assess the evidentiary status of the effects that follow from believing or disbelieving in open theism, a form of argumentation he calls an appeal to outcomes or argument from affect.(1) After reviewing the debate, Heard concludes that God’s defining attributes are independent of human desires and opinions. Simply put, “God is what God is, whether humans like it or not.” Heard argues that outcome oriented arguments reduce to arguing one’s “personal preference” and thus are ultimately useless in determining truth. He writes:

This points to one of the weaknesses of outcomes-oriented argumentation: the larger debate lacks an objective, consensual framework within which individual outcomes can be assessed as relatively worse or better than other possible outcomes. Because outcome-oriented arguments are inextricably linked to human preferences, and because human preferences differ, outcome-oriented arguments will typically succeed only with those who already agree with the arguer’s implicit value system which allows the arguer to categorize certain outcomes as good or bad, beneficial or harmful, and so on. Even if such an objective, consensual framework were available, however, outcome-oriented arguments would still suffer from a fatal flaw, in that human preferences do not determine the divine reality.(2)

Even if it is true that God is responsive in the sense of adapting to us, Heard says, it would still not be the case that “we can reshape the reality of God simply by proclaiming one theological alternative ‘better’ than another and assuming that God conforms to what (some!) humans consider to be ‘better’.”(3) Agreement or disagreement on which divine attributes are “better” than others, Heard argues:

…would not prove that those attributes actually characterize God. If God’s foreknowledge is in fact exhaustive, then it is exhaustive, whether or not we judge that state of affairs to be better, more comforting, more helpful, or more exciting than some other possible state of affairs; and if God’s foreknowledge is in fact limited or probabilistic, then it is so, whether or not we judge that state of affairs to better, more comforting, more helpful, or more exciting than some other possible state of affairs. God is who God is, and human beings do not enjoy the privilege of defining what God ‘must’ be and assuming that God lives up to that definition.(4)

Heard suggests that the principle “God is what God is, regardless of human value judgments about the quality of the divine nature” undermines the evidentiary force of existential arguments proposed in the debate over open theism. At best, such arguments can show what practical implications a particular theological approach on this question may have.

The difficulty with adequacy claims
Three observations in response to Heard seem appropriate. First, perhaps, we should note that neither side in the debate suggests that our views of God actually “shape the divine reality.” God doesn’t turn into what we believe he is. And open theists agree that God’s self-determining existence and nature are prior to and independent of all non-God actualities. Undermining belief in God’s aseity is not what existential arguments for (or against) open theism are about. What such arguments are believed to do is offer a kind of argument from design. That is, assuming God has purposed and designed us for truth, it is at least safe to reason from our experience of ourselves and the world at least to the plausible truth or falsity of those beliefs responsible for life’s functioning as it does. So although outcome oriented arguments involve a subjective element that makes them difficult to assess, they simply cannot be dismissed given our assumptions regarding the unity of truth and its role in our properly relating to God and the world.

Second, if the best outcome based arguments can legitimately do is establish what the practical implications of a view are, and if these practical implications have no part in determining the truth of the view in question, as Heard appears to claim, then one wonders whether or how the implications matter at all. Surely what is ‘legitimate’ about the implications of a belief is their contributing something to the determining of the truth of the claim. Heard, however, appears to affirm the importance of a belief’s implications while denying that the implications impinge on the truth-value of the belief in question.

Lastly, with Heard we can agree that it is a weak argument which claims simplistically that since believing some claim seems at the moment to meet a perceived need, the claim is therefore true. On the other hand, Christian believers will hardly want to deny the intuition that what is true about God and the God-world relationship will best explain our experience and best enable our existing in the world with and for God. Truth is, on a Christian account of things, intended to enable, enrich, and verify our living for God. This conviction grounds the usefulness of outcome based arguments or adequacy claims. Doctrine must prove itself by demonstrating its power to transform life. It is a kind of living that God is after. So the truth about God and the world, I shall assume, ought to secure belief states that enable our living our lives in the honor and enjoyment of God.

481The relationship between ‘faith’ and ‘praxis’
We can agree with Heard, then, that existential arguments are difficult to evaluate. But we disagree that the lines of influence travel in only one direction — from doctrine to how we live. Theological truth cannot be determined independently of pragmatic concerns. We simply do not function this way. The lines of influence move in both directions — from doctrine to how we live as well as from how we live to verifying what is true.

Heard argues that both sides in the open theism debate should spend less time on existential arguments and return to the role of Scripture in revealing truths about God. To learn what God is like, Heard suggests that we “move from biblical statements about God to theological statements about God” and then undertake the “careful exegetical and theological studies necessary to elucidate God’s character as revealed in the Bible.”(5) In response, I submit that while Scripture is of primary importance, it is at the same time the case that Scripture’s truth is a truth designed for our living and to which our living best conforms. Thus the practical/existential dimension informs our interpreting and theological systematizing by limiting the set of possible interpretations or claims to existentially meaningful ones.

Finally, while outcome based arguments are somewhat subjective, they can be more than mere arguments from “personal preference.” The ‘praxis’ for and from which open theists argue is that of shared experience. An individual experience that remains the experience of a single person can hardly be the grounds upon which a community understands and expresses itself. But shared human experience cannot but be the basis upon which a community understands and expresses itself. And it is a shared human experience that open theists offer as the basis of the existential fit of their views.

We have good reasons, then, to conclude that outcome based, or existential, arguments, while limited and fallible by virtue of their individual subjectivity, can be useful in determining truth by grounding meaningfulness in the shared experience of a community. This is a fundamental pragmatic insight. The point of existential arguments is not to say that whatever I find ‘convenient’ is therefore ‘true’, but rather to say that (a) whatever are the natural consequences of a belief, those consequences are that belief’s meaning for us, and that (b) whatever beliefs are true (theologically in our case), they will make possible a truly livable existence on the assumption that God has designed us to function best in truth. In the end, all of us conclude the truth or falsity of claims based on the difference that believing or not believing makes.

Granted, we are finite and fallible. With Heard we can agree that our experience itself can neither determine the divine reality (aseity) nor alone establish truth for a community. But these are not necessary to existential arguments per se. The usefulness of such arguments does not require an infallible individual subjectivity that makes individual experience an absolute judge of truth. Rather, as suggested here, we best look to the shared experience of a community to tell us what a belief ‘means’ and then admit this into whatever other arguments (exegetical, biblical/theological, traditional) are at play in order to determine theological truth-value. We do not, with Heard, first establish truth on grounds that admit no influence from shared experience and then seek to accommodate ourselves to it.

Four guidelines
To conclude our survey of issues related to the nature of adequacy claims, I offer the following four guidelines for evaluating such claims. First, the pragmatic maxim grounds the meaning of a belief in the practical effects that belief has and so makes it impossible to determine the truth-value of claims apart from their practical effects. Second, the practical effects must constitute the shared experience of a community before they can be admitted into the hermeneutical process by which that community understands and expresses its identity and mission. No one individual’s experience should be elevated to the status of being the measure by which the community is defined. Third, Scripture possesses a God-given authority that makes it an ultimate judge of human beliefs and experience, not visa versa, and this conviction must guide our reading of experience. This is easier said than done, however, for by our first guideline above, the practical effects a belief has in our life are what that belief can be said to ‘mean’. We are bound to live in the tension of this dialectic. Lastly, adequacy claims are still subject to the rules of logic and meaningful argumentation. No ‘experience’ in itself constitutes an ‘argument’. It remains for us to argue the place that some shared experience has in our larger theological framework in a coherent manner.

(Picture here and here.)


(1) R. Christopher Heard, “‘I AM WHAT I AM’: Inputs, Outcomes, and the Open Theism Debate,” Christian Scholars Conference, Malibu, California, presented July 22, 2005.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Ibid.

Creation as intra-trinitarian gift

the_baptism_of_the_christ_21Dwayne found this note of mine from a few years ago, tucked away hidden somewhere. It represents where he and I have been on this road together, and God knows I wouldn’t be here thinking these thoughts or living this life had God not brought our journeys together.


Let’s conceive of creation as an intra-trinitarian gift. Take the rationale for incarnation out of the sphere of human salvation. Instead of finding a place for the incarnation within the larger act of creation, let’s turn it around and locate the rationale for creation within incarnation. In other words, creation occurs to make incarnation possible. Creation really is about God celebrating Godself. Creation is God’s gift to Godself. The cosmos is just the means by which God creatively expresses himself to himself for his own enjoyment. One might conclude that we humans are an afterthought, and in a qualified sense, yes, that’s exactly right.

This views the incarnation not as a necessary means to a prior and independent project of human fulfillment. That would make incarnation subservient to humanity and elevate humanity unduly. What if we turn this all on its head and say God creates first to incarnate for Godself (viz., to express God to himself in a new and contingent way) and then to pursue relations with us as a consequence? We exist for him. Novel thought.

This would remove any need to understand the incarnation as intended for or in the service of human perfection in the sense traditionally believed. It means human perfection becomes necessary to God’s larger intentions for incarnation, not vice versa. To inset it just for the sake of emphasis:

Human perfection and glorification become implicated in incarnation in precisely the opposite direction we usually think. So human perfection doesn’t require the incarnation as much as the incarnation entails the perfecting of creation.

What I’m suggesting is that the reason for the incarnation be sought within the trinitarian relations (i.e., God re-expresses himself to himself via creation) and not within human perfection per se. Why should the Son desire to incarnate within the constraints of finitude as an end in itself? Perhaps because it is in the nature of God to personalize gift-giving. One puts one’s self into a gift, one becomes the gift. Thus the finite cosmos becomes intra-trinitarian gift as it is personalized by being united personally to the Son incarnationally. Creation is just the stage upon which the divine persons personalize their love as creative expression.

I think it was Bulgakov who said that a precondition for the incarnation is a certain identity between the divine “I” of the Logos and the human “I.” If creation is the place/means by which God re-expresses Godself ad extra and personally, there must be within creation some created sphere of personal capacities sufficiently adequate for personal existence. The Son isn’t personally incarnate as a rock or a tree, and the point is not finitude per se either. Some created entity must sufficiently bear the image of the Logos and thus be that created arrangement whereby the fully personal existence of the Logos can be manifest in created finitude. Humanity is that space. We are God’s gift to himself.

(Picture from here.)

The art of divine napping—Part 1

1033There he is — God incarnate. That zygote right there. And the Logos became flesh. We’ve discussed the whole zygote thing before. While debates about divine incarnation in the womb might appear fantastic or as uselessly speculative as arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, whether or not God really took the human journey in its entirety certainly bears on the integrity of the incarnation and with it the salvation Christians suppose is therein provided.

One possible line of inquiry which might shed light on recent discussions regarding kenoticism was suggested to me by Dwayne. It asks us to consider what it means for the Son to “have life in himself just as the Father has life in himself” (Jn 5.26; cf. Jn 1.4; 1Jn 1.1-2) and explore what the consequences of this would be for the kenotic claim that this same Son relinquished all attributes not compatible with the natural constraints of a created, embodied human nature. A couple of obvious questions might include:

(a) What would “possessing life in one’s self as the Father possesses life in himself” entail?

(b) Is the answer to (a) instantiable exclusively in terms of the constraints of embodied human nature?

Additionally, an important methodological question might be:

(c) What ought to be the proper order in answering (a) and (b)?

This last question (c) is unavoidably important. We recently finished up discussing Bruce McCormack’s Ch. 10 on Barth & open theism, and we noted McCormack’s complaint that open theists fail to make Christology the proper starting point for their doctrine of God. We are to start, he argues, with Christ and, not stepping outside the event of God’s own self-revelation in Christ, determine our understanding of God from there. Greg Boyd, not a Barthain by any means, is nevertheless equally passionate in advocating for a Christ-centered understanding of divine being. Jesus is God incarnate, and that should provide us a straightforward strategy for knowing just what being God really/essentially amounts to. Whatever supposedly essential divine attributes fail to be instantiated by Christ within the constraints of his embodied human experience can summarily be dismissed as not necessary or definitive of what it means to be God. Greg argues the point:

“If we allow the incarnate and crucified Christ to define God for us while embracing the Kenotic understanding of how the Son became a human, it becomes clear that the only attribute that defines God’s divinity is his love. That is, if Jesus was ‘fully God’ without exercising his omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence, then clearly God need not exercise omnipotence, omniscience and/or omnipresence to be God. One might of course argue that God must at least have the potential to exercise these attributes to be God. But it nevertheless remains true that….”

Thus kenoticism follows from a Christ-centered methodology for determining truth about God. If God’s essential attributes are to be understood as instantiated exclusively in terms of the boundaries of Jesus’ human experience, then what you see in Christ is all God is essentially and necessarily, “all that it takes” to be God. And, so the logic goes, since Jesus isn’t omnipresent and omniscient (among other things), these attributes aren’t essential to being divine. What is the only essential, God-defining attribute that can be gleaned from Christ’s life? What nevertheless remains true? Greg explains:

“…it nevertheless remains true that Jesus’ self-emptying entails that the only thing God cannot stop exercising and yet be considered God is his essence-defining love.”

Unfailing love. That and that alone is God’s self-defining essence and necessary actuality. Jesus loves without fail, therefore Jesus is God (never mind for the moment that we also shall one day love without fail without being God). And certainly no Christian wants to say God isn’t personally present in Christ or that God isn’t personally and authoritatively revealed in Christ, or that God doesn’t love without fail, so non-kenoticists like Dwayne and me are in the apparently disadvantaged position of having either to:

Answer (a) (i.e., what “possessing life in one’s self as the Father possesses life in himself”) prior to answering (b) (and thus be guilty of constructing our doctrine of God independently of Christology)


Somehow argue on biblical/Christological grounds that there’s more to the Son’s being divine than there is to the embodied experience of Jesus.

Sleepy God

We take the latter route, in view of which let us offer three suggestions for this Part 1 which have to do with the scope of the Christology at play in (b) and also with the nature of the apostolic testimony regarding God.

First, we’d like to suggest that the ‘Christ’ who ought to occupy the place of pre-eminence in shaping our understanding of God is not simply any single event in Christ’s life described in the gospels (as is the case, for example, with Greg Boyd who via a ‘cruciform hermeneutic’ argues that it is not the entirety of Christ’s incarnate career which finally and authoritatively determines our understanding of God but only the cross), nor Christ’s life as reconstructed on the basis of the gospel accounts only, but rather the entirety of Christ’s life as interpreted and applied apostolically. It is theologically illegitimate to pretend to have access to Christ independent of the whole range of apostolic authority and voice. The voice of the entire New Testament is equally authoritative for Christians in understanding Christ — who he was, what he accomplished, what his life means, in what sense he is God and in what sense he is human.

Second, it seems equally misguided to suppose that a description of Jesus’s life and career by Luke or Matthew is more definitive of our understanding of God than a description of God by, say, Paul which is not explicitly a reflection upon any aspect of Christ’s life. For example, Paul affirms (1Tm 6:16) that God is “immortal and lives in unapproachable light.” Where did Paul get this idea? Certainly not from any observation of the events of Jesus’ actual life. It doesn’t obviously follow from Jesus’ life, or his pre-eminent role in defining our understanding of God, that God should be thought of as immortal. It would seem Paul’s belief in God’s immortality was not derived Christologically but from the wider witness of the Hebrew Scriptures. This is not to say Christ’s life does not in fact render much of Israel’s understanding of God false. But it certainly means our doctrine of God is not simply the end product of looking at Jesus, writing down what we see and calling it ‘all that it takes to be God’.

If we have grounds on statements made by the apostles outside the gospel texts (Eph 2.20) for thinking God to be of a certain nature, then it would seem to follow that the Son, being divine, exemplifies this same nature though incarnate. Point is, statements made in the NT about God which are not obviously Christologically derived nevertheless have implications for what it means for us to say that the “fullness of deity” indwells Christ bodily (Col 2.9).

Third, unless one wishes to advocate an adoptionist Christology in which the Son descends upon or personally assumes an already existing human individual at some point (childhood, adulthood), we must understand incarnation to begin with Jesus’ conception. This means that whatever one wishes to believe God is on the basis of Christology, the scope of that Christology should embrace Jesus not just as a mature adult in responsible relationship with his Father or suffering in love on the cross, but also as a newly conceived zygote. The womb, not the Cross, is the least common denominator which kenoticists are obliged to reduce divinity to.

Problem is zygotes are neither personally consciousness nor self-aware, neither volitional nor relational nor subjects of a benevolent disposition or character — nothing that might fulfill that unfailing choice to love which Boyd supposes is the only necessary self-defining feature of God’s actuality. At this point we don’t wish to argue there are other self-defining features of God’s necessary actuality (although we believe there must be). We simply want to insist that whatever one supposes constitutes God’s self-defining necessary actuality, one must equally hold that the person of the Son instantiates this through the entirety of his incarnate career beginning with being a zygote. If the self-defining essence of divine being is unfailing love, then the Son must instantiate this unfailing love and do so exclusively in terms of a zygote’s created, embodied natural capacities (not just as a mature and responsible adult rationally exercising his freedom). It’s one thing to limit your Christology to the adult Jesus choosing the cross in the garden, or to his mature identity as the Father’s Son asking the Father to forgive them for they know not what they do and so conclude that “full divinity” is just the unfailing disposition to love at cost to one’s self. It is an entirely different thing to account for a zygote’s being divine exclusively in such terms.

Teaser sleepingWhere is the Son qua zygote doing what any of us thinks is necessarily involved in “being God”? Some kenotic answers we’ve met in conversation include, “Well, you’re still a person when you sleep, so the Logos is just sleeping in the womb,” or “You still love your wife when you’re asleep, right?” or “The Father and Spirit just agree to cover for the Logos during his absence.” I guess that must be what’s going on in that zygote there — the eternal Logos, the Father’s own Image, the author of life who possesses life in himself “just as the Father possesses life in himself” is taking a nap while the Father and Spirit cover for him.

In Part 2 we’d like to explore what it means for “the Father to possess life in himself” and then ask what it means to do Christology from this point of view on the assumption that the Son possesses life in himself “just as the father does.”

(Pictures here, here, and here.)

Toward the Trinity

warning-analogies13If we had to go with Dale Tuggy’s categories for the moment, we’d liken orthodox trinitarianism to what Dale calls “noumenal concurrent modalism” as opposed to his “phenomenological modalism.” The latter form of modalism posits ‘modes’ adopted by God as means of representing himself to the world. As such they’re not self-constituting; God relates only to us now as Father, now as Son, etc., and the distinction between these is merely formal. Modalism of this sort was condemned historically because the divine relations were believed to be definitive of God in more than a merely formal sense.

If the divine relations are forms of self-relation, then we’re not talking about a merely formal distinction between modes or roles God adopts in representing himself to the world. Instead, we’re imagining relations (perspectives? Language strains!) as constitutive of divine being per se (as far as we’re able to speak of these relations analogously).

What might such an analogy look like? In our view it could extend from human being as an analogy of God. As sentient beings, conscious subjects, we self-perceive or self-relate, and in self-relating are able to objectify ourselves; we image ourselves. We exist as persons minimally as this self-constituting conversation. We also reflect upon this conversation and observe it. This may not conform nicely to the options which Dale specifies as being our only trinitarian options in, say, his Stanford article (i.e., “She’s a three-selfer,” or “He’s a one-selfer”). Dale may need some new boxes. But it seems to us that the concern to regard YHWH as being the One God can be adequately accounted for in terms of the (Orthodox belief in the) ‘monarchia’ of the Father. As Nicaea begins, “I believe in One God, the Father Almighty….” No ambiguity there.

Imagine (analogously) a self-relationality (that which defines us as personal/relational beings) that obtains perfectly and paradigmatically in God (as he whose image we bear). Edwards’ approach expresses it nicely. Just as I self-contemplate or self-perceive and in this self-defining act generate an ‘image’ of myself as the objectified content of my self-perception, so God can be thought. Every conscious self objectifies itself and in this act self-relates. Kierkegaard would help here.

One concern is that even if this were true of God (such that the divine relations could be viewed as God’s self-existent act) these ‘perspectives’ don’t seem sufficiently independent or concrete. These ‘perspectives’ within us aren’t distinct ‘persons’ (and this is where our term ‘person’ fails). Hence at best we get what Dale calls a “noumenal concurrent modalism” — three ‘perspectives’ that define God essentially but which can’t bear the weight of the additional claim that these perspectives are ‘persons’. What to do?

It may be that Edwards can help us here. He suggests that where our powers to perceive (and in perceiving to reproduce or represent to ourselves, i.e., to have a perspective on ourselves) the truth about ourselves (thus generating our own image and self-relation) are inherently limited, God is not so constrained. I cannot consciously contemplate all that is in fact true about myself without remainder, and what I contemplate cannot reproduce the contemplated in its actuality. In addition, as a finite being whose ‘essence’ and ‘existence’ are in no way identical, this distinction between ‘essence’ and ‘existence’ is not the case with God. As a created being who exists contingently in the perpetual movement from potency to actuality, my existence and essence are never coterminous. This could not be the case with a necessarily existing self-existent God. In God’s case, all that is in fact true and actual about God the Father (YHWH) becomes true of his self-contemplated image. Nothing that ‘is’ in the case of the Father could fail ‘to be’ in the case of his own self-perceived image, with the exception of course that the ‘image’ (as the word suggests) is ‘derived’ whereas the Father is not so derived (i.e., the Father is not an image of anything else). This distinction is Athanasian.


Is my own ‘image’ me? Well, yes. And “I” wouldn’t ‘be’ apart from this self-relation. Are both numerically identical? Well, no; though where this relation is constitutive essentially of God’s self-defining actuality, both would share a single ‘nature’. But they are different self-constituting ‘perspectives’. This dialogue, this address and response, constitutes God’s undivided existence. (We’re definitely not thinking of a social trinitarian model.)

As an analogy, we’d like to extend a thought James Loder used to explain how ‘reason’ and ‘language’ map our experience of quantum mechanics (QM) as a means to imagine our shortcomings along theological lines. QM defines itself in terms of the question put to it. The answer you get (‘location’ or ‘velocity’) depends on the question you ask (Where are you? vs What’s your velocity?) But scientists and philosophers suppose reality — that which the world ‘is’ — not to be ultimately contradictory, and that ultimately how our experience of the world requires us to describe things is transcended by what is in fact the case. Whatever reality truly is (at the subatomic level), it is in fact a unity whose indivisibility just is the different answers it yields on the level of our perception and description re: relation and identity. We are led by our reason to posit that which ‘cannot be said’. The shape and form of our saying it at once involves us in paradox, though we must say it as we do.

In terms of one articulation of things, yes, Dale’s right, the truth of God certainly appears ‘modalistic’ in light of every attempt to possess the relations in terms of their unity. Similarly, the truth of God will appear ‘polytheistic’ in light of attempts to possess the relations in terms of their diversity. But — returning to QM for the moment — the math which describes reality achieves a sort of ‘creedal’ status and affirms both unity and diversity. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Planck’s constant are the Nicaea and Chalcedon of QM — we might say. We comprehend their terms and we must ‘say it’ so, but we can’t help but complain that they posit a world which defies final explanation and which the categories we have to deploy balk at in their own way.

Having offered a psychological analogy of the trinity, we want to make it clear that (a) this is an analogy and not a claim to have univocally described ‘what’ God is, and that (b) other analogies are needed to expresses other aspects of the biblical narrative, and that (c) all these analogies together fail, as all analogies must, to reduce triune being to their respective truth. Karen Kilby is right to warn us against too confidently reducing God to any one analogy (cf. her “Is an Apophatic Trinitarianism Possible?” International Journal of Systematic Theology 12, no. 1 (2010): 65–77). We don’t assume God is simply a blown-up version of what human ‘personal’ existence is. However, it is our personal existence (as opposed to that of rocks, trees or cows) which by virtue of bearing the divine image is an analogy of God.

(Pictures here and here.)

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.

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.

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!