Diagnosing our disagreements

Open theism at 20—pathology and treatment.
I confess that I’ve struggled with a bit of — what’s the word? — ill will, maybe even resentment, toward the 1994 pioneers of open theism (authors of The Openness of God) as I’ve watched open theism fragment into the several contrary visions our previous post refers to: fundamentalists who want to own the term, mainstream trinitarians who feel open theism ought to be identified as at least Christian and trinitarian, and others who see open theism as an interfaith theology intended to promote human freedom and indeterminacy among monotheists in general. Throw into that mix others of a more process inclined cosmology who nevertheless self-identify as open theists.

We suggested in our last post that part of what characterizes, perhaps even explains, this fragmentation today is the absence of leadership. From my perspective at least, Clark Pinnock, even if unintentionally, was a kind of theological center of gravity around which the developing conversation called “open theism” revolved and took shape. The center of gravity, it seems to me, was at the very least Christian and trinitarian. Pinnock crossed a lot of lines to engage other communities, including process theists and even Mormons, asking how we’re really different and how we’re alike. I don’t object to this kind of dialogue. Love it. But some seem to think that open theism simply is this dialogue. Others of us see open theism as a distinctly Christian theology in dialogue with others. There’s difference. Today open theism has no distinctly Christian theological center of gravity. That is what some of us are objecting too. Presently, however, the most we can say for sure is that open theism’s center of gravity is ‘monotheism’ — generically understood. (Come to think of it, though, why should a polytheist who believes in this openness and integrates it into his entire pantheon not be called an “open theist”?).

My feeling for some time has been that Clark Pinnock and the other 1994 authors bear the responsibility for pastoring/parenting this thing. After all, The Openness of God was a full-throttled launch of a fundamentally new paradigm. My assumption was that they had also agreed to stick with the results, that is, pastor this conversation to make sure it moved and matured theologically in a direction consistent with their original vision. But since Pinnock’s death none of the 1994 authors has stepped forward in this way. That bothered me for some time, perhaps in large part because I put a lot of hope into it. It seems to me that positions which are broad enough to be considered ‘shared interfaith beliefs’ typically don’t generate a lot of reformational heat.

But for whatever reason, pastoring the movement born out of the conversation they began wasn’t part of the agenda for the remaining ’94 authors. That’s OK. And maybe I’m over-analyzing things. If so, then open theism really is just an interfaith platform for discussing human freedom and indeterminacy within monotheism. Cool. I wish that project well. It’s not something I see myself investing a lot of energy in, but if that’s where open theism is going, that’s where it’s going. Where do we go from here? I honestly don’t know.

(Picture here.)

A cell made of diamonds?


“We were with Christ; we didn’t know that we were in prison.” Richard Wurmbrand (1909-2001), was a Romanian Pastor tortured for Christ in prison for years. Check out a bit of his testimony here. Listen to what he says from 2:08 to 3:17. That is apatheia, far from the debilitating doctrine that some conclude it is.

(Picture here.)

It’s all Process, Baby, all the way down

180px-Whitehead_anHaving located the center of “classical” theism as the belief that God is actus purus, that is, the belief that there is no potentiality in God, now would be a fitting time to race to the other end of the spectrum and try to find the center of that theism most unlike the classical view. That opposing view is Process theism.

Process theology grew out of the Process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) whose views are explained in his Process and Reality (1929), though when you read it you might prefer “encrypted” to “explained.” Whitehead’s cosmology was further developed and expanded by Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000). Today there exists a good deal of diversity among Process theists, but it’s safe to say that in essentials they all agree. And while it is always risky to boil down something as sophisticated and intricate as Process metaphysics to a few key points, as we move forward our conversation will require us to have on hand the belief or beliefs that form the center around which other Process convictions revolve.

Process theology has been experiencing somewhat of a revival. There are many online summaries and several book surveys that are far more user-friendly than Whitehead’s Process and Reality. Bob Cornwall has a nice brief summary here. Check out all you can. And in the meantime, allow us to post a short summary of our own:

Points of Process —

  • The most fundamental thing about reality is that it is a process of becoming, a process the smallest constituents of which (called “actual occasions”) are events (or “drops”) of experience.
  • Every “actual occasion” is in some minimal sense free, creative and self-determining.
  • God’s role in the process of the world’s becoming is to define the optimal outcome for every actual occasion with an initial aim. This aim is that occasion’s highest value, its most beautiful version of itself possible in that particular moment.
  • God “lures” or “persuades” (never coercing or determining) every occasion toward this aim.
  • God, like all existing entities, is in a process of becoming. God takes into his experience all the process of the universe, defining the aims and perfection of all entities and assimilating the increasing diversity of the world’s becoming. Thus God’s actuality (his actual experience) is co-constituted with the world and is improved upon (i.e., made more ‘valuable’, for value grows with increasing diversity) as God harmonizes the world’s growing complexity.
  • The God-world relation is a necessary and essential one. The material universe (or some universe[s]) exists eternally in God.

duchampdescendingThere is much more to Process that we cannot here discuss. But perhaps we could boil this down with a famous comment of Whitehead’s that reveals what we think is as good a candidate for being the defining center of Process as actus purus is for classical theism. Whitehead commented, “God is not to be treated as an exception to all metaphysical principles, invoked to save their collapse; he is their chief exemplification.” In other words, God and world together constitute a single ontology between them, a single “order of content and explication.” No ontological distinction between divine and created being per se, no categorical transcendence of creation, no “analogical moment” for David Hart. There is instead only a singular ‘being’ possessed by both God and the world.

If “classical” theism’s center is actus purus, a view which holds God’s self-constituting perfections to be utterly free and independent of creation, a God in whom there is no unfulfilled potential and thus no “process” whatsoever to speak of, we can say Process theism makes the opposite claim — that God’s existence and perfections are thoroughly historicized, constituted in and as the ever changing process of God’s ongoing relationship with the universe, a relationship which is as consequential for God as it is for the world.

Consequences follow from such a view just as inevitably as from classical theism, chiefly regarding the triune nature of God (Process doesn’t require a trinity and struggles to account for its necessity where it is affirmed), Christology, and eschatology. But these points will require more attention as the discussion moves on..

(Pictures here and here.)

See what’s there

white empty room with opened doorWhile Dwayne puts his post together I wanted quickly to make a few shameless plugs for resources you might find helpful. I have brief introduction to the open view over on Jeff Clarke’s blog and a longer essay at John Sanders’ site. If you’re interested in the practical existential arguments for open theism, check out my Critical Evaluation. And if you’re a heavy lifter and enjoy the philosophical side of things, you can’t do better than Alan Rhoda’s articles. Having cooperated with Alan before, I can’t recommend him enough. We’ve been batting ideas back and forth for so long that there’s a lot of Alan in me. I’ll do my best to reference my indebtedness to him on specifics, but for the record, we’re indebted to Alan big-time. (Image from here.)

Defining claim and core convictions

Ask ten people what open theism is and you’re likely to get ten slightly different answers. That’s not an encouraging fact. A lot gets associated with open theism that isn’t properly essential to it, and it’s not uncommon to find those who think open theists all share the same views regarding divine vulnerability and suffering, non-violence and pacifism, theories regarding the atonement, inspiration and inerrancy, universalism, and more. But there is no unique ‘open theist’ view on any of these issues. There are a few key theological commitments behind the claim that God foreknows a partly open future, but it’s not the case that open theism entails its own unique perspective on every doctrinal question.

In this first of a series of posts we’d like to summarize open theism’s defining claim and core convictions. In a second (Tom’s) and a third (Dwayne’s) we’ll summarize our interest in Orthodoxy and what we find especially appealing about it. And in a fourth we’ll lay out what we think are the paths along which a conversation between the two could profitably be pursued and ways in which we think open theists could deepen and enrich their own theological vision.

Darts_in_a_dartboardOpen Theism’s defining claim: divine epistemic openness regarding future contingents.
The defining claim of open theism is pretty simple: divine epistemic openness regarding future contingents. Now, that’s a mouthful, so break it down. Some aspects of the future are presently ‘settled’; that is, given everything at present which has anything to do with influencing or bringing about the future, some things about the future are determined to be. The causes and influences (divine and created) that presently exist limit the future to a single possibility with respect to some particular event.

To say the future is ‘open’, on the other hand, is to say that some things about the future are contingent, which we take here to mean that what occurs freely or contingently isn’t inevitable or otherwise determined or entailed by the past. It’s rather to say that some event ‘might and might not’ happen. One way to imagine this is to think of the future in terms of a tree that branches out as you move up the trunk. We’re essentially saying there are a number of ways the future could turn out. Where the future is closed we face a single branch or path the future will take in some respect. Where the future is open we face multiple paths any one of which the future might and might not take.

Saying the future is partly open and partly closed isn’t itself a uniquely open theist claim or an especially controversial claim. Non-open theists of the free-will or Arminian persuasion (even the Orthodox) would agree the future is open in this sense. The controversial claim we open theists make is our insisting that God’s knowledge of the future reflects this openness, i.e., God knows the truth regarding the future’s being closed or open (whichever the case might be).

What doesn’t often get explained is that this defining claim is the conclusion and not the premise of a set of core convictions which open theists share. That is, we don’t start with God’s knowing a partly open future. We end there. Where we start is with three core convictions that we believe lead to the conclusion of divine epistemic openness regarding future free acts. Let’s take a look at these.

Core Conviction One: Love with respect to divine purpose.
First, it’s no exaggeration to say that at the heart of open theists’ understanding of God is the belief that God is love. He doesn’t love sometimes and not others. He ‘is’ love. Open theists have been severely criticized for this belief, but as we’ll see, viewing the triune God as love (in the sense open theists need to maintain) is hardly modern or unorthodox.

We might say that all the distinct attributes of God we discuss (truthfulness, justice, holiness, etc.) are merely the ‘differentiated truth of love’. Like the colors of light that are split into an observable spectrum when dispersed through a prism, so the attributes of God are essentially just the observable acts of a single reality at work in the world and that reality is ‘love’. The triune God is essentially (i.e., apart from any created order whatsoever) the eternal act of self-giving-and-receiving love the fullness of which is the fullness of God’s own being and existence, and it is this God who has purposed us to know and reflect his love in the fullness of our created capacities.

Core Conviction Two: Freedom with respect to creation.
Second, God has created us to become loving participants in God’s life and responsible partners in fulfilling his intentions for the universe. We become so through the free and responsible exercise of our will. With a view to our becoming persons who love unfailingly, then, God endowed us with the capacity to determine ourselves through responsible choice.

Core Conviction Three: Risk with respect to providence.
By ‘providence’ we mean God’s administration and maintenance of the universe in the pursuit of his purposes. This is where things get complicated because though many will agree that ‘God is love’ and that because God has purposed us for loving ends he gave us the capacity to decide whether or not we conform to such ends, only open theists embrace the conviction that in endowing us with such freedom God takes a certain ‘risk’, namely, that we would misuse our freedom and corrupt ourselves in ways God neither decreed nor especially permits. Traditional views of providence are ‘risk-free’ in the sense that whatever evils occur they are precisely what God decided (by ordaining or specifically permitting) in order to bring about some good God is after.

It is reimagining the world to be in some respects a ‘risky’ venture (risky even for God in terms of his always getting the outcomes he wants) which is perhaps the thing that makes open theism most unlike the traditional understanding of God we Protestants grew up with. It means essentially that God doesn’t always get what God wants, nor is it the case that every particular evil represents the ‘necessary means’ to some specific good that God wills.

Once we accept that our universe is a sometimes risky place of intersecting and often competing divine, angelic, and human wills where much of the good God desires to achieve is by God’s own loving plans conditional upon our partnering with God, we gain a new and sobering appreciation for all those acts of devotion and obedience to which we are called by God and by which we partner with God in bringing the universe to consummation.

To summarize, then. God is love, and he creates for benevolent purposes which include creation’s coming to participate in and reflect the love that he is. This glorifies God, and this glory is the end for which all things are created. To fulfill this end, God endowed us with a certain freedom, and this freedom in turn entails certain risks. Open theists reason from these three core convictions — divine love and a free and risky creation — to the conclusion that God knows the open future as a branching out of possible ways or paths the world might and might not take. But from the open theist’s point of view, these core convictions are the heart and soul of the view. The conclusion that God doesn’t eternally foreknow in every conceivable detail precisely how the world’s possibilities will unfold (which claim has received all the attention) is — to put it surprisingly but perhaps more accurately — the most uninteresting thing about the view. For us it’s not particularly about foreknowledge; it’s about freely becoming what God purposed us to be. It’s about theosis. The foreknowledge piece turns out to be just the most consistent way we know to express it.

In search of an Open Orthodoxy

418gAnctRQL__SL500_AA280_Interpreting Mozart as Jazz? That’s what the musicians Manhart, Sapotnik, and Lachotta do with their CD Nightsteps. Does it work? Would Mozart approve? That’s hard to say. But we know how they feel, for it is with a peculiar joy and some apprehension that Dwayne and I inaugurate An Open Orthodoxy, a conversation in pursuit of the ancient and the new, the traditional and the novel, the orthodox and the open. We are both open theists who worship within an Evangelical setting but have over the past few years found ourselves beholden to a good deal of what we find in Eastern Orthodoxy. We have also been a part of the ongoing debate among Evangelicals regarding open theism and continue to work to clarify and promote its theological values and convictions. Just what those values and convictions are will be much discussed here.

We have sensed for some time now that open theists are missing something, something beautiful and valuable, something—to anticipate many posts to come — transcendent, even healing, about which Orthodoxy has something to say. This always comes as a bit of a surprise to our open theist friends. “You what? You read the Fathers? You like the doctrine of apatheia? How’s that possible?” For open theists there’s virtually nothing worth saving about “classical” theism (which for open theists includes all expressions of Christian theism prior to the Protestant Reformation and most Protestant expressions of the faith up until 1994 with the publishing of The Openness of God).

Dwayne and I both joined other open theists in this nearly wholesale rejection of Christian tradition. But then we started to explore the Fathers and to experience what it is we think they were describing. We (pun intended) ‘opened’ ourselves up to a more serious conversation with Orthodoxy. We are by no means admissibly Orthodox. We suspect our Orthodox friends will dismiss us for being insufficiently Orthodox. At the same time we suspect many of our open theist friends will dismiss us for being too “classical.” And yet, here we are — in search of an open orthodoxy.

Wish us luck!