Richard_Rice_Theological_Virus1

Fighting the Virus of Classical Theism: Richard Rice and The Openness of God’s Bold Rejection of Divine Impassibility

Last month, I traveled to San Diego, CA for the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. More specifically, I attended the SBL/AAR annual conference to present a response paper in the second session of the Open and Relational Theologies group, which was commemorating 20 years since the publishing of The Openness of God by Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, Richard Rice, William Hasker, and David Basinger. Three of the original authors of the book (John Sanders, Richard Rice, and David Basinger) were there in attendance and presented reflections on the last 20 years.

Why commemorate The Openness of God (OOG) [1]? Because that book signaled a theological shift in U.S. American Evangelicalism, which has few parallels. It was a bold vision that made claims about God that were shocking to the evangelical theological establishment and still shock many evangelicals today.

The Openness of God and the Theological Virus of Classical Theism

So what did The Openness of God claim? I’ll let the authors of OOG explain:

“We decided to present [the Openness of God] in book form for several reasons. First, no doctrine is more central than the nature of God. It deeply affects our understanding of the incarnation, grace, creation, election, sovereignty and salvation. Moreover, the doctrine of God is full of implications for daily living. One’s view of God has direct impact on practices such as prayer, evangelism, seeking divine guidance and responding to suffering. […]

These inharmonious elements [the inconsistency between Christians’ beliefs about the nature of God and their religious practice] are the result of the coupling of biblical ideas about God with notions of the divine nature drawn from Greek thought. The inevitable encounter between biblical and classical thought in the early church generated many significant insights and helped Christianity evangelize pagan thought and culture. Along with the good, however, came a certain theological virus that infected the Christian doctrine of God, making it ill and creating the sorts of problems mentioned above. The virus so permeates Christian theology that some have come to take the illness for granted, attributing it to divine mystery, while others remain unaware of the infection altogether. This book, we hope, will be a needed antibiotic to aid the healing process, bringing about a healthier doctrine of God.” [2]

Several things to note here. First, the authors of OOG claim their presentation is a doctrine of God. Yes, it’s true that one of the most important aspects of Open theism [3] is the openness of the future, which could be thought of as a doctrine of creation. But the authors of OOG do not hesitate to claim that Open theism is also a different view of God’s nature itself. Make a note of this.

Second, the authors of OOG contrast their doctrine of God with the “classical” and “traditional” view of God (p. 9). In fact, the authors mention the “inevitable encounter between biblical and classical thought in the early church.” They do not caricature Greek thought (as they are often accused); they acknowledge that this syncretism had some good intentions. They, however, are clear that those good intentions do not excuse the consequences, which they boldly call a “theological virus.” They believe Open theism is the “antibiotic.”

Third, it’s important to also note that the authors of OOG knew that their doctrine of God would have far-reaching implications, implications on other doctrines and even on practices. They say so explicitly.

OOG was a bold critique that earned the authors a great deal of criticism. Their most vocal critics were from among the New Calvinists who had secured then (and still have today) a great deal of political power in Evangelicalism. But they also received criticism from Classical Arminians as well. Both of these camps of Classical theists saw Open theism as a threat to their doctrine of God.

In the very first chapter of OOG, author Richard Rice begins to set out the “classical” and “traditional” view against which Open theism is contrasted. Against the caricature of Open theism most people conjure, it may be striking to some that Rice draws a bullseye around the doctrine of impassibility as a prominent feature of the virus, not just exhaustive definite foreknowledge. He writes,

“According to [the “traditional view of God”], God dwells in perfect bliss… essentially unaffected by creaturely events and experiences. He is untouched by the disappointment, sorrow or suffering of his creatures. Just as his sovereign will brooks no opposition, his serene tranquillity knows no interruption.” (p. 12)

According to Rice, Open theism stands in contrast to the view that God “dwells in perfect bliss,” “essentially unaffected’ by the suffering of creatures, with no “interruption” to his “serene tranquillity.” This is, in fact, the traditional doctrine of impassibility Rice is describing. And it is Open theism he is saying rejects it. He could not be more specific when he surveys the biblical data from an Open theist perspective:

“The biblical descriptions of divine repentance combine elements of emotion and decision to provide a shocking picture of the divine reality. They indicate that God is intimately involved in human affairs and that the course of creaturely events has profound effects on him. It stirs his feelings and influences his decisions. His is variously happy and sad, joyful and disappointed, disposed to bring blessing or judgment, depending on the behavior of human beings. […]

Such an interpretation conflicts, of course, with the popular and theologically entrenched idea that God lies utterly beyond the reach of creaturely experience, serenely untouched by our joys and sorrows, overseeing the inevitable fulfillment of his will irrespective of human actions.” (p. 34)

This view Rice calls the “popular and theologically entrenched idea” is synonymous with Classical theism and the “theological virus” for which Open theism is an “antibiotic.” The virus says God is “serene” no matter what happens to human beings. But the antibiotic says God is sorrowful over sin and injustice. The virus says God is “untouched” by human joys and sorrows, but the antibiotic says God’s feelings are “stirred”.

Rice addresses the inevitable push back from those infected with the virus. They will claim that these anthropomorphisms are “unworthy” of God. Surely we cannot take these descriptions “literally”.

“[I]t is difficult to see what, if anything, would remain of the idea of God in the wake of such sweeping denials. They would deprive it of any meaningful content. If human beings and God have nothing whatever in common, if we have utterly no mutual experience, then we have no way of talking and thinking about God and there is no possibility of a personal relationship with him.” (p. 35)

Evangelicals, in particular, are fond of talking about enjoying a “personal relationship with God.” But evangelical theology which abstracts God from human experience makes such a “relationship” impossible. Open theism seeks to cure this disease that prevents Christians from speaking honestly about a relationship with God.

But how can Open theists speak so authoritatively about God having human-like experiences? How can Open theists justify this univocal God-talk? Is it not impious to speak of God having human-like experiences? Many who are infected with the virus are convinced it is. They will condemn Open theists for denying God’s “transcendence,” God’s “glory,” or God’s “equanimity.”

The answer to all of these questions, of course, is Jesus.

Jesus, the Cross, and the Open View

OOG not only boldly asserted that Open theism serves as an antibiotic to the theological virus of Classical theism, it also boldly asserted that it was radically rooted in and truer to the revelation of God in Christ.

“The familiar word incarnation expresses the idea that Jesus is the definitive revelation of God. According to the central claim of Christian faith—”the Word became flesh” (Jn 1:14)—this particular human life was the most important means God has ever used to reveal himself. The fundamental claim here is not simply that God revealed himself in Jesus, but that God revealed himself in Jesus as nowhere else. In this specific human life, as never before or since, nor anywhere else in the sphere of creaturely existence, God expresses his innermost reality. Accordingly, from a Christian standpoint it is appropriate to say not only that Jesus is God, but that God is Jesus. For Christians, Jesus defines the reality of God.

The incarnation reveals many things about the character of God. The fact that God chose to express himself through the medium of a human life suggests that God’s experience has something in common with certain aspects of human experience. If human life in its fullness and complexity, with social, emotional and volitional dimensions, represents the supreme expression of God’s own nature among the creatures (Gen 1:26-27), it is reasonable to infer that the distinctive features of human experience are most reminiscent of the divine reality. It would therefore seem that God, like us, is personal existence. If so, then God enjoys relationships, has feelings, makes decisions, formulates plans and acts to fulfill them.” (p. 39)

What a bold proclamation indeed! Even many Christians will chafe at this claim. They will object to Jesus’s life, ministry, teachings, death, and resurrection begin the definitive and authoritative revelation of what God is like. They want to look other places, because if God is like Jesus, then suddenly their entire picture of God is upended. God’s “transcendence” cannot mean that God lives in some kind of “bliss.” And God’s “glory” cannot mean that God is untouched by human suffering. Where would one even come up with a doctrine of “equanimity”? So, they simply relativize Jesus. They brush him to the side. Surely there are better ways to think about God than through the lens of Jesus!

But Open theist author of OOG, Richard Rice, says no. He even has the audacity to suggest that Jesus’s parables have something to teach us about God’s character and nature!

“[Jesus’s] parables suggest that God’s feelings involve a broad spectrum of emotion, and they relate God’s experience to ours in a very interesting way. They show us, first, how like and then how unlike ours is [to] God’s experience. God’s love is like ours in its openness to pain and joy, but his capacity for these experiences is greater than anything of which we are capable. […]

So the open view of God draws some important parallels between divine and human experience, but it does not by any means equate the two. God is like us in being sensitive to the experiences of others, but radically different from us in the profound depth of his feelings. Like traditional theism, the open view of God affirms divine transcendence, the radical difference between God and all things human. But whereas traditional theism seeks to safeguard God’s transcendence by denying divine sensitivity, the open view of God does so by maintaining that his sensitivity and love are infinitely greater than our own.” (p. 42-43)

This emotional “sensitivity” to the experiences of human beings that Rice repeatedly mentions is in contrast to the prevailing theory of God (i.e. “Classical theism”) which holds that God is emotionally insensitive. But Rice clearly argues, if we get our picture of God from Jesus, this theory cannot be true. On Christ-centered grounds, Rice rejects the traditional doctrine of impassibility.

But someone will object that God’s emotional experience is only changed an “infinitesimal” amount since God is “infinite.” But Rice specifically says the opposite: God’s emotional life is profoundly moved by human experiences. God’s capacity for emotional sensitivity is greater, not less than human capacity.

The ultimate evidence for God’s emotional sensitivity and vulnerability for Rice is the Cross of Jesus Christ. For Rice, this is where God himself is depicted as suffering. God himself is acted upon and pained by human sin. God himself suffers and is crucified in Jesus Christ, God the Son.

“The idea of a suffering God is the antithesis of traditional divine attributes such as immutability and impassibility. It contradicts the notion that God is immune to transition, to anything resembling the vicissitudes of human experience. To quote Leech again, ‘The cross is a rejection of the apathetic God, the God who is incapable of suffering, and an assertion of the passionate God, the God in whose heart there is pain, the crucified God.’ Strange as it seems to some, this idea faithfully reflects the central affirmations of the New Testament concerning God’s relation to Jesus. Identifying God with Jesus leads ultimately to the conclusion that what Jesus experienced in the depths of his anguish was experienced by God himself. If the Word truly became flesh, if God was indeed in Christ, then the most significant experience Jesus endured was something God endured as well. The cross is nothing less than the suffering of God himself.

A careful look at the center of Christian faith, the life and death of Jesus, thus supports the idea that God is intimately involved in the creaturely world and experiences it in a dynamic way. His is aware of, involved in and deeply sensitive to human events. His inner life is not static or impassive at all. It surges with powerful emotions.” (p. 46)

Wow, what a claim! The Cross of Jesus, according to Rice, reveals truth about the “inner life” of God himself. This is sure to challenge Classical theism’s belief that God is “impassible.” But Rice is fully aware of that. He makes his direct claim: “[God’s] inner life is not static or impassive at all.”

What a bold vision of God Open theism is—and what a needful one in today’s world. I’m grateful for the courage the OOG authors demonstrated by putting forth this vision 20 years ago. I hope and pray that they will continue to stand by this vision, even amidst the fight against the virus of Classical theism which continues to threaten to infect Open theists. I hope and pray Open theists continue to resist the virus and don’t become its casualties.

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1. Hereafter, The Openness of God will be abbreviated “OOG”.

2. Clark Pinnock, et al., The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (InterVarsity Press, 1994), p. 8-9.

3. “Open theism” along with “the Open View” are alternative labels for the “Openness of God.”