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Dancing, Arson, and a Plain Reading of Scripture: Brian Zahnd and Austin Fischer Debate Two New Calvinists in Chicago

Last Wednesday, Zondervan and the Sojourn Network (a New Calvinist church planting group) partnered to sponsor a debate on Calvinism in Chicago. The debate featured four participants: Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones representing Calvinism, along with Brian Zahnd and Austin Fischer representing non-Calvinist Christian theology. The reason Zondervan was involved is because the debate was designed as a promotional event for the two New Calvinists’ book: PROOF: Finding Freedom Through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace published by Zonderan.

Debate Participants

Daniel Montgomery is a local pastor of a New Calvinist church in Louisville, KY affiliated with Mark Driscoll’s “Acts 29” church planting network. He received his ministerial and theological education at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a school known for its outspoken, New Calvinist president Al Mohler. Timothy Paul Jones also received his education at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, even being awarded a doctorate. He is well-known in conservative and New Calvinist Baptist circles for writing and lecturing on Christianity.

Representing non-Calvinist Christian theology were two pastors and authors: Brian Zahnd and Austin Fischer. Zahnd pastors Word of Life Church outside Kansas City and is the author of several books including his most recent book: A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace. Austin Fischer is a pastor at Vista Community Church in Temple, TX. He is author of the book: Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey In and Out of Calvinism.

“New Calvinism”?

When the subject of “Calvinism is raised in conservative Evangelical circles, someone will inevitably launch the “Not All Calvinists are like that” objection. So, before the first commenter on this post embarrasses themselves, let me clearly say: It is a given that not all Calvinists are alike. And everyone grants that there is a diversity of views even among Calvinists. The specific type of Calvinism that is being discussed in this post—the kind promoted at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary—and the kind espoused by the two representatives in the debate Wednesday is “New Calvinism.” This particular form of Calvinism has been made popular by, and is embodied in the teaching and ministries of, such popular figures as Mark Driscoll and John Piper. It is sometimes (I think rightfully) called Neo-Puritanism because it more resembles the views of Jonathan Edwards than John Calvin. New Calvinists do not share the emphasis that Calvin himself had on Christology and ecclesiology, for example. Instead, they are fixated on soteriology. Preferring to call their views “the Doctrines of Grace,” [1] New Calvinists take their soteriological system to be synonymous with “the Gospel.” This is why a group of New Calvinists have called themselves “The Gospel Coalition.” Calvinist preacher and New Calvinist hero Charles Spurgeon famously said, “Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else.”

What’s the Debate?

Space does not permit an exhaustive definition nor historical exposition of the New Calvinist movement. So, I’ll constrain my description to the areas around which the debate was formed.

Proposition 1

First, New Calvinists emphasize their own interpretation of Scripture regarding the doctrines of Election and Predestination. They teach that God is meticulously in control of all that takes place in the universe. Calvinist thinker R. C. Sproul encapsulates the New Calvinist’s view of divine “sovereignty” this way: “If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled.” Therefore, all that happens in the universe and throughout history is 100% God’s doing, God’s will.

This obviously raises significant concerns when one considers all the evil, oppression, and injustice that has taken place in history and continues to take place even now. That’s why the New Calvinists more often than not refuse to acknowledge that this belief makes God the “author of evil.” Instead, New Calvinists claim it is simply a mystery how God can be “sovereign” (in their absolutely controlling conception), while also morally good, and yet evil still exists. They confess however that they are “comfortable with that tension.”

For non-Calvinists, this “tension” is incompatible with the revelation of God found in Jesus Christ crucified for all people (including his enemies). That is why the first “proposition” up for debate in Chicago on Wednesday was whether or not the New Calvinism was congruent with a christocentric vision of God.

Proposition 2

Secondly, the so-called “Doctrines of Grace” (aka T.U.L.l.P.) also constitute a view of God’s redemptive activity called “monergism.” The Monergist view holds that the redemption is an act of God entirely and completely independent of any response from human beings. From the New Calvinists’ perspective, if any response from human beings is involved in the redemptive work of God, God will not receive maximal “glory” for redemption. So New Calvinists reject “synergism,” which posits that human beings are granted the capacity to respond to God’s free offer of saving grace. For New Calvinists, redemption is accomplished through God’s eternal “decree” which occurred before creation, and through God’s “irresistible” grace. So, the second proposition debated was whether or not the cause of repentance and saving faith is monergistic or synergistic.

Observations and Comments

Whenever I watch a debate like this one, I tend to question the moving parts: the participants, the format, the moderator, etc. In this case, it seemed particularly lopsided in favor of the New Calvinists. The moderator, Mark Galli of Christianity Today, is a Calvinist and regularly writes on the subject. At one point during the debate he even quipped that he should be receiving royalties from the sale of Austin Fischer’s book, since its title riffs of the now-famous title of a Christianity Today article chronicling the rise of New Calvinism (“Young, Restless, Reformed”) which he claimed to have created. Even the venue favored the New Calvinists, since Missio Dei Church is part of the Sojourn Network of which Daniel Montgomery is Co-Founder and President.

Yet, even though the venue and moderator both favored the New Calvinist participants, Austin Fischer and Brian Zahnd clearly owned the debate right from the start. From Fischer’s opening statement, in which he forewarns listeners to look out for an “avalanche of euphemisms” when it comes to what Calvin called the “terrible decree”—namely Reprobation [2]—Austin and Zahnd controlled the tone and content of the debate.

Austin’s prediction was impeccably correct. Montgomery and Jones never once tried to defend Reprobation, but consistently spoke of God’s election only of those predestined to be saved. That is, until, Timothy Paul Jones eventually and surprising confessed “Yes” to “Double Predestination” . To the uninitiated, this confession was meaningless. But, to those aware of Calvinist jargon, this confession is devastating. Double Predestination is the belief that God predetermines the destiny of both the Elect and the Reprobate. This is precisely what most Christians find appalling, and what the Church Catholic has condemned in councils and among both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. This is, most assuredly, a heresy to the Church Universal.

But the New Calvinists continued unrepentantly with their completely predictable presentation. They appealed to Ephesians 1, Romans 9, and John 15.16 like they were trump cards. They proceeded as if this were an undergraduate dorm room at Southern Baptist Seminary. But they were severely mistaken. With two metaphors, Fischer and Zahnd dismantled their arguments and pointed to a Jesus-looking God.

The Fire-fighting Arsonist

The first killer metaphor was employed by Fischer. He wanted those who would watch this debate to know that despite the New Calvinists’ clever attempts to disguise it, the reality is that whatever condition they claim God is saving humanity from, their theology necessitates that God caused it. If it is true, like the Calvinists claim, that God rescues a group of preselected people from the tortures of their conception of hell, it is only because God “ordained” that humanity would be damned in the first place.

Fischer’s metaphor of God wanting the world to “burn down” conjures the image of the firefighter who has a narcissistic pathology which tempts him or her to start the very fires he or she is charged to rescue citizens from. This firefighter puts lives in danger only for the “glory” of being the one who swoops in to the rescue.

The reason this metaphor is so damning (pun intended), is because the New Calvinist routinely use the idea of God “saving some” from hell as the pinnacle of their argument for God’s redemptive glory. “Everyone should go to hell for their sins” Calvinists routinely shout. But, this is only just if human beings are responsible for their sin. In New Calvinism’s conception of why people go to hell, it isn’t because they have sinned and must suffer the consequences. No, it is because God “ordained” that they would sin and suffer the consequences before God brought creation into being. If any theology “robs God of glory,” it is the one that makes God out to be a psychopathic firefighting arsonist.

Making Baptists Uncomfortable

The second killer metaphor in this debate was utilized by Brian Zahnd. Zahnd is no novice at debate and as a veteran preacher his rhetorical skills are masterful. With one metaphor he shifted the imaginations of listeners and buried the New Calvinists beneath a conceptual mountain they could not uphold. In reference to the redemptive work of God, Zahnd compared God’s electing call to a dance. “Anything but *dancing*!!” cry the Baptists. But Zahnd would not let up. He compared the New Calvinists’ monergistic view to a sad image of God dancing “forlornly” with a mannequin. It will be difficult for anyone who watches this debate to remove that image from their imaginations. Here Zahnd borrows from some excellent and ancient theology. The image of God dancing harkens to mind the doctrine of perichoresis: the inter-penetration of the Persons of the Godhead of one another. This is pictured as a dance into which humanity is invited to join. But if the New Calvinists’ monergism is correct, God has elected to dance with a mannequin: the inanimate figures who only resemble responsible persons. What a devastating picture! The New Calvinists never recovered.

The Two Very Worst Calvinist Arguments Ever Uttered

But, if I’m being fair, Fischer and Zahnd didn’t only win this debate because these two metaphors overshadowed anything Montgomery or Jones said. No, to be fair, the New Calvinists did a tremendous job of presenting the very worst arguments in favor of their views, and that was just as responsible for their defeat as the skill of their opponents.

For example, one argument Montgomery made repeatedly was that Fischer and Zahnd simply were not employing a “plain reading” of Scripture. At one point he asserted this bizarre accusation three times in the span of a minute. The problem with this assertion, of course, is that a “plain reading” of Scripture doesn’t exist. There is no such thing. This rhetorical move has been made famous by Fundamentalists: “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” But this approach to biblical interpretation is nothing short of an illusion. Every person who comes to the Scriptures does so from their subjective perspective. There is absolutely no guarantee any thing that is “plain” to one person will be plain to another. Here, the New Calvinists assume their particular, subjective reading of Scripture is the “plain” reading.

This is not just a failure for Montgomery and Jones. No, this is a failure for evangelical hermeneutics. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary should be ashamed of themselves after watching that debate. Montgomery and Jones should march back to their alma mater and demand every cent they spent on their M.Div. and Ph.D. respectively. There is no justification for how they can be trained in biblical interpretation and remain that misguided outside of gross educational negligence or intentional indoctrination.

But, unfortunately, their disastrous arguments did not end with presumptuous interpretation. They also attempted to pile guilt onto Fischer and Zahnd for “questioning God.” To the New Calvinists, their interpretation of Scripture is synonymous with God himself. To question their interpretation is to question God. That is why throughout the debate, both Montgomery and Jones attempted to shame Fischer and Zahnd by rhetorically asking them the question Paul poses in Romans 9: “Who are you O man to talk back to your maker?” Ironically, it was not Fischer and Zahnd who dripped with arrogance, it was the New Calvinists. They arrogantly equated their interpretation of Scripture with God’s authority itself.

Bill Cosby Reacts to New Calvinism from T. C. Moore on Vimeo.

Concluding thoughts

Obviously, Wednesday’s debate will not settle the matter for many if any. In fact, it may serve to intensify the debate for some. But what’s clear is that two of the brightest lights in the New Calvinism movement hosted a debate that heavily favored them for the promotion of their new book on Calvinism and lost. The debate wasn’t close.

Hopefully, what will come from this will be more substantive future discussions. I’d personally like to see the New Calvinist move beyond arrogant and presumptuous shaming. If New Calvinists can acknowledge that they approach the Scriptures like everyone else, with presuppositions, then a more fruitful discussion may be had. But until then, the same old proof-text wielding debate will continue to repel thoughtful Christians.

____________________________

1. The tenets of New Calvinism can be summarized in the acronym T.U.L.I.P., which stands for: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints. For more on New Calvinism, see:

Against Calvinism by Roger Olson (Read my review here: http://www.academia.edu/1181701/To_Kill_a_Tulip_A_Review_of_Roger_Olsons_Against_Calvinism)

– “The New Calvinism” by PBS [http://video.pbs.org/viralplayer/2365215800]

– “Young, Restless, Reformed” – [http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/september/42.32.html]

2. Reprobation is the doctrine which holds that God predetermines who will be punished in hell for eternity before God created the universe. These people never have a chance to repent; they are “damned” before their birth.

 

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How Not to Worship a Black Hole: A Review of Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed by Austin Fischer

CASCADE_TemplateAuthor: Austin Fischer
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Cascade/Wipf & Stock (2014)
Language: English
ISBN: 9781625641519

Amazon

Official Website

Over the last 15 years, I’ve engaged in far more discussions, “debates,” and arguments over the subjects of election, predestination, free will, determinism, foreknowledge and the like, than I’d actually be comfortable admitting. Some Christians care very little for these subjects, not simply because they are anti-intellectual or want to avoid conflict, but because they don’t understand what they have to do with their picture of God’s character. For me, however, these subjects have been critical. I’ve heard it said regarding theology that for many people—but perhaps particularly for certain personalities—one’s head and one’s heart have to agree, in order for that person to genuinely worship God. When it comes to these subjects, that has always been my desire: to worship God with my whole self. That is why I have never been able to either stomach emotionally nor substantiate intellectually the God constructed by Calvinism. I both cannot find it taught in Scripture, nor can I love and worship the portrait of God it paints.

That is not to say that I don’t recognize that many millions of Christians can and do. In the process of honing my own views, I have learned a great deal about Calvinism from Calvinists themselves. I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy many long-term relationships with Calvinists, including mentoring and professorial relationships. The vast majority of the Calvinists I’ve interacted with in person have been thoughtful, godly people. (Some unfortunately have not been). Online, however, I cannot say the same. The vast majority of the Calvinists I’ve interacted with through the medium of the internet have come across as arrogant, militant, and intellectually dishonest. That is perhaps why I continue to read books on this subject. A part of me is still deeply puzzled by the phenomenon of New Calvinism 1. In fact, it surprised me that I was not aware of this book sooner. While I’m normally one of the first to hear of books rebutting Calvinism, I didn’t know this book existed until a Facebook friend named Taylor Scott Brown began posting quotes from it as he was reading it. A few weeks later, my friend Erik Merksamer (aka “Mixmaster Merks”) read the book and lent it to me. So now that I’ve read it myself, I’d simply like to outline the book for anyone who might read this review before making a decision about reading it, add some of my own thoughts here and there, and give it my hearty recommendation.

An All-too-familiar Story

One of the reasons Fischer’s book packs a disproportionately powerful punch into such a compact container is that he leverages his own story, his own theological pilgrimage, in the deconstruction of Calvinism—and it is a story with which many tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of Christians in the U.S. can intimately relate. It is the story of a young evangelical searching for a deeper, more meaningful connection with God who finds it in the austere and pietistic teaching of Calvinism. However, like Clark Pinnock before him 2, Fischer recounts his journey in and out of Calvinism. Also like Pinnock, Fischer’s journey will coincide with a journey through evangelical academia and evangelical Christian culture in North America.

Better to Feel Pain Than Nothing At All

Right away, Fischer explains what enticed him to embrace Calvinism in the first place (and it wasn’t irresistible)—Fischer actually recalls that he resisted quite a bit. A part of him appreciated Calvinism because it ‘put him in his place.’ But another part of him resented Calvinism for ‘rubbing his nose’ in his fallen human nature. This is a common first-blush response to Calvinism: It hurts. so. good. The pain of being told you are not the center of the universe, and that God is, feels authentic and true. In contrast to the prevailing culture in North America, which seems to be obsessed with convincing young people in particular that self-esteem is the most important part of an emotionally healthy life, Calvinism rebels and teaches that self-esteem is sinful and ungodly. Furthermore, many millions of young evangelicals have unfortunately also discovered that the message of the church in North America is not much different from the message of the world. Churches cater to their congregants, giving them ever more cushy chairs (not pews!), coffee and bagels in the lobby, maybe even a full mall-like campus to peruse, but definitely an encouraging and “relevant” message for them to ponder on their commute back to their comfy suburban homes or to work the next day. “No!” says John Piper and his Calvinism. “God is the Center! Not human beings!” Fischer was sure this was true, and Calvinism was the vehicle that delivered the message.

Allow me to press pause on Fischer story thus far to make an important observation. The claim that God is the center of the theological universe for Christians just plainly isn’t exclusive to Calvinism, no matter how much Calvinists may shout that it is. Non-Calvinists have not deliberately nor accidentally replaced God with themselves as the Creator and Sustainer of their lives, let alone the universe. This is simply a talking point used by Calvinists to contrast their position with those of others, as well as an attempt to present their view as unique. Well, it simply isn’t. All Christian theology claims that God is the center around which our universe theologically revolves. “Free-willers” (as non-Calvinists are sometimes called in the book) are not essentially nor merely idolaters who reject God as God. Now, back to Fischer’s story.

The Good and Necessary Consequences

Once Fischer had succumb to the weight of Calvinism crashing down on him, he then squirmed under the pressure of its ‘good and necessary consequences.’ What of suffering? (aka ‘the theodicy question’ or the ‘problem of evil’) Here is where many Calvinists either dig their heels in and go so far as to say God ordains, and renders certain, all injustice, all disasters, all crimes, and all sin. Or, Calvinists will equivocate at this point, and plead ‘mystery’ or ‘paradox,’ like it”s a Get Out of Blasphemy Free Card.

Fischer is far too polite and nuanced to say what I’d say on this point: The good and necessary consequences of the Calvinist’s portrait of God is a monster the likes of which the most evil depot or tyrant in history pales in comparison. Hitler has nothing on the God of Calvinism! Pol Pot was a boy scout compared to the God of Calvinism! Every single day, somewhere in the world, human beings experience torture, starvation, brutal violence, sexual abuse, and the God of Calvinism is ensuring every second of it happens! Such a “God” is not only not worthy of worship; such a “God” is worthy of only our contempt and righteous indignation.

If you’ve spent any amount of time discussing these subjects with Calvinists, you will inevitably arrive at the point in the conversation when the Calvinist plays the “God’s-Ways-are-Higher-Than-Our-Ways” card. Fischer is told only “liberals” start from what God “should be like”, and read the Bible in that light. In other words, only “liberals” have presuppositions. (Preemptive posturing). Fischer is told that what he thinks “love” and “justice” and “goodness” mean is not what God thinks they mean. Our concept of these things is tainted by our total depravity. But, for some strange reason, Fischer isn’t convinced:

“It’s fine to say that God’s goodness does not directly correspond to human notions of goodness, but what exactly could I mean when I say God is good? In what sense was God good if he had done something like creating people so he could damn them? Pardon the pun, but if that is good, what the hell is bad?” (p.24)

And even though Fischer has successfully stumbled upon some of Calvinism’s incoherence, he doesn’t directly confront the underlying fallacy of the principle supposedly derived from Scripture. Calvinists like to quote Isaiah 55.8-9:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
 neither are your ways my ways,”
 declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
 so are my ways higher than your ways
 and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

But Calvinists forget to put these two verses in context. God is calling Israel to repentance, so that God can forgive Israel and establish an “everlasting covenant” (v.3). In the verses immediately preceding verses 8 and 9, it reads,

“Seek the Lord while he may be found;
 call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
 and the unrighteous their thoughts. 
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
 and to our God, for he will freely pardon.”

The way in which God’s ways are higher than human ways, and God’s thoughts are not human thoughts, is in God’s unmatched and unfathomable mercy. The people of Israel do not deserve God’s mercy, but God is freely offering it. That boggles the human mind, which demands retribution. Instead of retribution, God offers amnesty. We cringe at the thought! We balk at his ways! But God says, ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways higher than your ways.” This is as far from God saying “My concept of goodness is to damn people to hell before humanity was created” as is conceivably possible. It is the complete opposite in fact! It is God saying, “My concept of goodness is to extend mercy and pardon to people who deserve to go to hell.” And yet, this is where Calvinists run to justify their belief in what Calvin himself called the ‘horrible decree.’

Fischer stumbled upon the good and necessary consequences of this picture of God, and he is rightly disgusted. Next, Calvinism will undermine his trust in the Bible that is supposed to teach him Calvinism.

The Philosophical Tail Wagging the Biblical Dog

I once attended a debate between two well-known and published seminary professors, one a Calvinist and the other a Free will theist. The Calvinist prefaced his comments by saying, “You [Free will theists] let the philosophical tail wag the biblical dog.” The Calvinist was referring to the difference between the Calvinist’s view of “free will,” also known as Compatibilism 3, and the Free will theist’s view of free will, also known as Libertarian free will 4. What the Calvinist professor obviously failed to recognize is that both perspectives on free will are philosophical constructs which are not explicitly taught in Scripture. Such a claim is merely more preemptive posturing: “My presuppositions are better than yours!”

In Fischer’s experience, the philosophical presupposition that allowed Calvinists to claim that God’s love, justice, and goodness have no human analogy served to completely undermine his trust in the supposed source of Calvinism: the Bible.

“If Calvinism is right and we are so unbelievably wrong about God’s love, justice and goodness due to our humanity, why would we think we are right about God’s integrity and truthfulness in revealing himself in the Bible? In fact, in light of how wrong we (apparently) are about love, justice, and goodness, is it not only possible but probable that we are equally wrong about God’s truthfulness and integrity? […]

In a strange turn of events, my Calvinism had taken back the very Bible it had once given me. The theology that had trumpeted the Bible’s inspiration and authority had now discredited both.” (p.33-34)

It appears that, for Fischer at least, Calvinism wagged the biblical dog by the philosophical tail so hard, the tail broke off and the dog went hurdling through space. Oops!

Building Your Theological House Upon a Rock

Fischer’s journey deep within Calvinism has now left him numb and depressed. He has lost the basic capacity to simply contemplate Jesus on the Cross and say “thank you!” All meaning and beauty has been drained out of the Gospel and all truth has been stolen from the Bible. But Fischer is not content to remain a cynic. He refuses to be merely another demolitions expert, skilled at deconstructing theological systems. He desires a theological home, a tribe with whom he can build a life of faith that is not only intellectually satisfying, but also energizes a life-giving relationship with God. So he spends a near-equal amount of this brief book constructing a healthy, biblical, theological home for battered and weary refugees from Calvinism like himself.

This is perhaps the point at which I was most proud of Fischer. If I were listening to these chapters preached from a pulpit, I’d be that guy shouting “Amen!” and waving my Pentecostal ‘hanky’. Fischer wants a Christian theology, not just any old theology. So he begins where Christians begin: with the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth the Messiah. I loved that Fischer exposes the unpublicized truth about Calvinism’s hidden God behind Jesus Christ crucified. This is one of Calvinism’s best kept secrets. There are a lot of New Calvinists these days who talk about being “Christ-centered,” but this is simply not honest. Calvinism’s essential tenets do not allow a person to see God in the face of Christ crucified. “Where do you see God as Jesus is being crucified?” (p.45) And this truth also exposes the violence Calvinism does to the Trinity:

“This sets up a rather awkward dilemma in Calvinism wherein God the Father is making people suffer and God the Son (Jesus) is healing people of the suffering the Father is inflicting. How was I supposed to believe God would inflict eternal suffering on people for sins he ordained they commit, when Jesus (the exact representation of God) always healed people of their sufferings? For me this was neither mystery nor paradox, but sheer divine schizophrenia. It opened up a fissure in the very heart of God by splintering the Trinity, setting up Father and Son in opposition to one another—the Father crucifies sinners while the Son is crucified for sinners.” (p.47)

Jesus, the Biblical Picture of God

Once Fischer is disabused of the Calvinist portrait of God he goes back to the Bible with a renewed passion to construct a biblical theology centered on Jesus. This, it turns out, was much more intuitive than he imagined. The whole Bible points to Jesus, and more specifically it points to Jesus on the Cross.

“…all four Gospels unremittingly hone in on one twenty-four hour period as the center and climax of not just the story of Jesus, but the story of Israel, of humanity, and all creation. […] And if scripture teaches us to look first and foremost at Jesus in the Gospels, and the Gospels train us to focus on the crucifixion, it would seem clear that the cross offers us the deepest glimpse into the very heart of God.” (p.45)

In the light of the picture of God created by the Crucified Messiah, subjects like free will, God’s sovereignty, God’s love, the image of God in humanity all begin to make sense for Fischer.

At the center of the universe, there is not a black hole of deity, endlessly collapsing in on self, but a suffering, crucified, mangled lamb, endlessly giving away self.” (p.50)

The Dog with the Least Fleas

Another highly admirable aspect of the new theological house Fischer has found, is that he can be honest about its faults. Fischer does not present Free will theism as a flawless destination where all Christians should land. He readily acknowledges that it too has mysteries and “monsters in the basement.” However, it should be clear by now, that whatever bullets he or you or I will have to bite to affirm Free will theism are far less problematic than the fatal bullets of Calvinism. No perspective this side of the Age to Come will be perfect. But Fischer would urge us not settle for a theological house built on the quicksand of Calvinism.

One of the challenges Fischer points to is a perennial favorite for Calvinists: the topic of “earning one’s salvation” or “boasting.” For the uninitiated, Calvinists contend that apart from monergism, the view that God unilaterally acts in spiritual regeneration with unconditional election and irresistible grace, humanity has in some way “earned” their salvation by having the ‘ultimate decision.’ This human response, Calvinists contend, is the “works” against which Paul railed and the Reformation protested, and that such a decision entitles humans to boast of their righteousness in heaven. Against this charge Fischer summarizes common Arminian rebuttals, including a recent version by Roger Olson.

Let’s take another brief break from Fischer’s story to interject a note on the fundamentally faulty premise upon which the Calvinists’ entire reasoning rests. The Calvinist reads Paul’s letters (where the dreaded “works” comes from) through the lens of the Protestant Reformation. But Paul simply was not a sixteenth century Protestant reforming the Roman Catholic Church. Paul is a Hellenistic Jew forming the first-century Church out of Jews and Gentiles. The “works” against which Paul rails aren’t Catholic indulgences, but the keeping of the Jewish Torah. And the keeping of Torah wasn’t an attempt to “earn salvation,” but a badge of privilege which Jews thought entitled them to salvation. Once one realizes that Paul is not arguing against the medieval notion of storing up righteousness by doing ‘good works,’ but is instead arguing against the practice of excluding Gentiles from the community of Christ based on their cultural-ethnic identity, one is disabused of the “works righteousness” boogeyman. 5

A second challenge Fischer acknowledges is divine foreknowledge or the omniscience of God. Here, Fischer slightly disappoints me. In one of the only references to Open theism in the entire book, the view is not properly explained and is lumped in with the dilemma of God creating a world in which he foreknew so much evil would result. Since so much of this book was so well thought through, I’m going to give Fischer the benefit of the doubt and conclude that the oversight of including Open theism in this dilemma is due to a lack of understanding. However, it’s clear from his endnotes that Fischer has read Is God to Blame? by Greg Boyd in which he would have at least been exposed to Open theism on its own terms. Nevertheless, Fischer here compromises the integrity of his new building by installing a faulty load-bearing beam.

Open theism, when understood correctly, actually relieves the very tension Fischer here ascribes to it. Having a “very good idea” of what might possibly result in the future (which is how Fischer mostly correctly characterizes the Open view), is worlds apart from the Classical Arminian position of Exhaustive Definite Foreknowledge. The Classical Arminian finds him or herself caught on the horns of the same dilemma as the Calvinist. God’s foreknowledge of the future is “definite.” This means all of what God foreknew about humanity’s fall into sin, the grotesque evil that human beings would inflict upon each other, and the eternal damnation that awaits all who ultimately reject God was Certain before the world was created—even though Classical Arminians affirm the Libertarian free will that Calvinists abhor. What little relief Libertarian free will has granted Classical Arminians in granting human beings responsibility for their choices, has been wrenched back from them by the doctrine of Exhaustive Definite Foreknowledge. In either case, whether God causally ordains all evil (as in Calvinism), or whether God simply foreknows it as a certain (as in Classical Arminianism), the result is the same: The question of why create the world to begin with towers over their views like an ominous dark cloud.

However, the Open theist simply doesn’t face the same dilemma. In Open theism, the future of humanity was neither fixed from eternity by Exhaustive Definite Foreknowledge nor by causal predetermination. Instead, God created the world with genuine possibilities to actualize or not actualize. In Open theism, a world is a place where the evils which have occurred did not have to necessarily. This cannot be said of either Calvinism nor Classical Arminianism. Therefore, Fischer’s haste to lump Open theists in with other Free will theists as having to confront this dilemma was ill-informed. 6

With a New House Comes New Furniture

Fischer’s journey is not yet completed. He, like us, will continue to contemplate the God revealed in Jesus and will no doubt grow in his knowledge and understanding of that God. However, as a result of his exodus from Calvinism, Fischer has gained a new posture toward theology that will serve as critical furniture in his theological house. Fischer has learned some humility.

Back when Fischer was a Calvinist, he had all the answers. Even as a freshman in college, Fischer thought he was ready to graduate because parroting John Piper’s answers to complex theological conundrums made every challenge simple: “God was the self-glorifying, all-determining reality who did everything for his glory, and I knew it because the Bible told me so. Can I have my diploma now?” (p.19) But after he’d journeyed to the center of the black hole he’d been worshipping and barely escaped with his faith, he learned to walk with a limp.

See, Fischer learned that certainty can be an addictive idol. Certainty can become a person’s security instead of God. And the God of the Bible isn’t as interested in making you secure in your certainty as he is interested in inviting you to join him on an adventurous and risky mission. The God of the Bible is not a tame lion who is boringly predictable. The God the Bible might choose not to show up in the whirlwind or the fire. The God of the Bible might choose to show up in the most unlikely places, like a peasant, refugee baby or an executed Messiah.

Chapter 9 of Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed shows that Fischer has built into his new theological house the furniture that will support a healthy life of faith. He recognizes that his perspective is subjective and always will be. He recognizes that his experience will be different from that of others. He also recognizes that while he may not have it all figured out, his love for God compels him to keep speaking and teaching what God has taught him.

Recommendation

Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed is by far the most succinct, scholarly, accessible, and engaging refutation of the New Calvinism I’ve read—and this area is something of a specialization I’ve developed. In 108 pages, Fischer manages to pack his own journey in and out of Calvinism, poignant reflections on some very complex theological challenges, and memorable pithy phrases into an immensely readable package.

This book is for any evangelical who has brushed up against the New Calvinism in any form.
If you are a Calvinist, read this book!
If you are not a Calvinist, but you have been frustrated by less-than-pleasant interactions with Calvinists, read this book!
Or even if you know nothing about Calvinism, but have heard that term tossed around flippantly, read this book!

This book should be required reading in every evangelical Christian college in North America from now on. And from now on, I’m going to be recommending (and perhaps even distributing) this book to any and all interested parties. Thank you, Austin Fischer, for writing this vitally important book at this critical time.

__________________________________

  1. As Scot McKnight and Austin Fischer both explain in the book, it’s difficult to choose a label for the phenomenon of the recent surge (in Western countries) of adherence to the five doctrines summarized in the acronym T.U.L.I.P. (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints). This set of doctrines constitutes the most succinct expression of what is called “Calvinism.” However, there is still much debate on whether a person must adhere to all five doctrines to be considered a “true Calvinist.” Nevertheless, it is not entirely clear whether the recent up-tick in adherents to this system of soteriology should be called “Neo-Reformed,” “Neo-Calvinists,” “Neo-Puritans,” “New Calvinists,” or something else. For my part, I have probably used any one of these monikers for this same group. However, in Against Calvinism, Roger Olson makes an excellent and succinct case for why “Reformed” is not a good descriptor for this group since even Classical Arminians are “Reformed” and even many non-Arminian Reformed Christians do not center their faith around TULIP. What does characterize this group is that it is overwhelmingly white, Western, middle-to-upper-class and identifies with the teachings of figures like John Calvin, John Piper, Jonathan Edwards, John MacArthur, Mark Driscoll, Al Mohler, and others.
  2. In 1989, Clark Pinnock published an essay entitled “From Augustine to Arminius: A Pilgrimage in Theology” in a book titled The Grace of God, The Will of Man (Academie Books, an imprint of Zondervan). In this essay, Pinnock details his journey from “five-point” Calvinism to a form of Arminianism that would later come to be known as “Open theism.” As of 3/9/14, the essay can be accessed at:[http://www.pinpointevangelism.com/libraryoftheologycom/
    writings/calvinismarminianism/FromAugustineToArminius-Pinnock.pdf
    ]
  3. Compatibilism
  4. Libertarianism
  5. For more on why ‘works’ in Paul do not equate to ‘earning one’s salvation,’ I recommend these books by N. T. Wright:
  6. For more on Open theism, I recommend these books:

 

Boyd_of_Straw1

Building a Boyd of Straw with Sound Bite Scholarship

1. Historical Setting:

Openness-of-GodThe Openness of God was published in 19941 and made significant waves in evangelical theological scholarship circles. The view detailed in that book wasn’t new; it had been held by many Christian theologians throughout Church history2, but what made the book so significant is that the evangelical theological landscape in the United States had shifted and a new regime was in power: Neo-Calvinists3. These conservative evangelical scholars viewed Open theology as a threat to their new found hegemony, so they sought to discredit and marginalize Open theists. Two of the clearest examples of this were the attempt in 2000 by John Piper to have Greg Boyd ousted from the faculty of Bethel Seminary, the denominational seminary of the Baptist General Conference (now “Converge”), and the 2002 attempt to expel John Sanders and Clark Pinnock from the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS).4 In both cases the complaints were brought by Neo-Calvinists. Another casualty of these Neo-Calvinist inquisitions was Roger Olson, a classical Arminian scholar. He has written candidly about the dishonest and dishonorable ways he was treated by Neo-Calvinists simply for suggesting Open theists were not heretics and that Open theism deserves to be consider a legitimate evangelical position.5 In 2010, Dr. Olson had this to say,

“The controversy has largely died down now.  But there are many stories yet to be told about it. I believe much of the controversy over open theism among evangelicals was fueled by misinformation, misrepresentation and down right demagoguery.  In many places and at many times open theism and open theists did not receive a fair hearing.  And I know of cases in which evangelical critics knowingly misrepresented open theism in order to create fear of it among the untutored (i.e., people who would never pick up and read a book by an open theist).

As I look back on that decade long controversy now, my heart is heavy for evangelicalism.  I was profoundly disillusioned by the dishonesty and lack of sincerity of many evangelical luminaries who I know read books by open theists and often talked with open theists about their views and nevertheless went public with blatant misrepresentations.  I was also profoundly disillusioned by the heat of the controversy in which some evangelical scholars and leaders hurled accusations and charges against open theists that were completely out of proportion to the amount of time and effort they had spent in dialogue with their fellow evangelicals who either were open theists or sympathized with them.”6

The beginning of the decade Olson describes is the setting in which an author with whom I am unfamiliar, named Paul Kjoss Helseth, wrote a critique of Greg Boyd’s Open theism for the Journal of the ETS (the very group that would vote to investigate Pinnock and Sanders a year later). There is no doubt Helseth’s work helped to fuel the flames of discord that led to the 2002 ETS witch hunt. The claim of the article is that Boyd’s Open theism describes and promotes an arbitrary and malevolent conception of God over and against all his own claims to the contrary. The article is titled, “ON DIVINE AMBIVALENCE: OPEN THEISM AND THE PROBLEM OF PARTICULAR EVILS”.7 As Dr. Olson so poignantly put it, Helseth’s article is filled with “misinformation, misrepresentation and down right demagoguery.” In this brief refutation, I will address many of the caricatures and fallacies contained in the article, though an exhaustive reckoning is far beyond the scope of this piece. I’m certain a book-length treatment would scarcely provide space. Instead, I must limit myself to exposing only a portion of the many Man of Straw arguments, logical fallacies, and dirty scholarship tricks this article includes. To start, I will detail many of the foundational errors this article makes.

2. Building a Boyd of Straw:

YourLogicalFallacyIs_NoTrueScotsmanIn order to construct a convincing Boyd of Straw, you have to gather up enough straw with which to stuff him. Helseth begins gathering straw by making several foundational presuppositions and performing several acts of semantical sleight of hand.

First, he presumes there is one Christian tradition, one “orthodoxy,” and it just so conveniently happens to be his. The first sentence reads, “Throughout the history of the Christian Church, orthodox theologians have claimed that God is an omniscient being who has exhaustive knowledge of the whole scope of cosmic history.” John Sanders describes this tactic aptly. He writes,

“Some have criticized openness from departing from ‘the’ tradition and a few even called it ‘heresy.’ A few responses are in order. First, ‘the’ tradition is not singular for there are multiple streams. Those who accuse us of rejecting ‘the’ tradition usually enshrine their own particular tradition as ‘the’ tradition.”8

Helseth isn’t forthcoming about the tradition of which he is a part. He doesn’t identify the perspective from which he is approaching Open theism. By this, it is clear he intends to give readers the impression he is somehow neutral. The reality is, Helseth is a Neo-Calvinist—a member of the very same group who felt their political power in the evangelical academy was being threatened by Open theism. His tradition is not “the” tradition; it is one of many. He does not represent classical Arminians like Roger Olson and he does not represent Relational theologians9 of any stripe. He is among a narrow stream of Christian theology that holds several presuppositions about the nature of God, time, free agency, Scripture, and experience. Transparency, it appears, is not a value of Helseth’s, or is not expedient in his attack upon Open theism.

YourLogicalFallacyIs_BlackWhiteSecond, the author uses semantical sleight of hand with phrasing and rhetorical questions. Several times in the opening few paragraphs, the author sets before readers false dichotomies. Every false dichotomy boils down to a fool’s choice that isn’t really necessary to make, nor being advocated by Open theists. For example, he writes:

“Must we conclude that we are less than genuinely free because God knows everything there is to know about what has been, is, and will be—including the future free decisions of his creatures? Or, must we rather acknowledge that God is less than exhaustively omniscient because we in fact are significantly free?”

The bizarre nature of the phrase the author here uses, “exhaustively omniscient,” betrays his attempt to fool uncritical readers whom he has already biased against Openness by suggesting it is heresy. By the author’s own definition, omniscience is, “know[ing] all true propositions about everything that has been, is, and will be, and [doing] so in a manner that extends to the minutiae of past, present, and future reality.” Open theists agree with this definition and affirm divine omniscience. To know All true propositions is by logical necessity “exhaustive”—unless the author is aware of a sense in which All can mean non-exhaustive. Here are Open theists affirming divine omniscience:

“Though open theists are often accused of denying God’s omniscience because they deny the classical view of foreknowledge, this criticism is unfounded. Open theists affirm God’s omniscience as emphatically as anybody does. The issue is not whether God’s knowledge is perfect. It is. The issue is about the nature of the future God’s perfectly knows.” – Greg Boyd 10

“Everyone agrees that God is omniscient and knows everything that any being could know. He knows everything that has existed, everything that now exists, and everything that could exist in the future.” – Clark Pinnock 11

“…the omniscient God knows all that can be known given the sort of world he chose to create. […] There are several views about the content of divine omniscience (for example, Molinism and Thomism) and though everyone agrees that if something is knowable then God knows it, they disagree about what is possible to know.” – John Sanders 12

“All Christians agree that God is omniscient and therefore knows all of reality perfectly. The debate over God’s foreknowledge is rather a debate over the content of reality that God perfectly knows. […] The view I shall defend agrees unequivocally with the classical view that God is omniscient.” – Greg Boyd 13

Following the author’s rhetorical false dichotomies designed to misinform readers about what Open theists actually believe, he quickly moves to misrepresenting Open theism as a novel idea. This is another common device Neo-Calvinists use to throw shade on Open theism. If they can convince people it is new, they may also be able to convince people the view has no merit. So Helseth claims Open theism has been concocted by “contemporary postconservative theologians.” While Pinnock, Sanders, and Boyd might be classified by some as post-conservative, Boyd (the subject of the article) has never self-identified as one. Neither is it true that Open theism begins with post-conservatives at all. After fourth century proponents, and proponents in the Middle Ages, the next group to advocate for the Open View were some sixteenth-century Remonstrants. After that, several eighteenth to twentieth-century Methodists like Adam Clarke, Billy Hibbard, and Lorenzo D. McCabe were proponents.14 I’m not the first to make such an observation, but it strikes me as more than a little ironic that the most vocal critics of “new” theological ideas in the U.S. evangelical academy are the “Reformed” Neo-Calvinists. Obviously they are no longer reforming, and have forgotten how novel their own movement is within Church history.

Third, Helseth presents Open theists as redefining terms. This is another common ploy to discredit a view with which Neo-Calvinists disagree. Their definition of terms is the accurate, orthodox one, while anyone with a different usage is heterodox. However, once again, the author has already defined omniscience and Open theists agree with his definition and affirm divine omniscience. Therefore, no redefinition has taken place. Instead, what has happened is that Open theists recognize the true propositions which God exhaustively knows to include not only what “will” or “will not” happen, but also what “might” or “might not” happen. God knows that it is true I “might” finish writing this piece, and God knows that it is true I “might not.” Neo-Calvinists like Helseth don’t acknowledge the reality of “might” and “might not” true propositions, and therefore, he accuses Open theists of redefining. But both Helseth and Boyd affirm that no matter how many true propositions there are, fewer or greater, God knows them all (or “exhaustively” if that the term Helseth prefers). Helseth’s claim that, “Open theists insist… [God’s] omniscience does not extend to the details of future reality in an exhaustive fashion” is false. Instead, Open theists “insist” that the “detail[s]” of the future include contingencies that might or might not obtain—and that God knows them as such—because God’s knowledge is co-extensive with reality. What does not exist in the future are the settled “will” and “will not” true propositions regarding the choices of free agents (both human and angelic) that are not logically or causally necessary. Those true propositions do not exist because they are logically contradictory. At this point, Helseth gets his first fact about what Open theists believe correct. “Like square circles or two-sided triangles, future free decisions cannot be known because they simply do not exist; they do not constitute a part of knowable reality.” This acknowledgement of an actual Open theist belief only serves to further expose the falseness of his prior claims. If he recognizes that Open theist don’t believe “future free decisions” exist as part of “knowable reality,” how then can it be true that their non-existence contributes to a lack of “exhaustive” omniscience? Obviously, it cannot. But Helseth carries on obliviously with either a logical error or an intentional deception.

For another case of Helseth’s sleight of hand semantics, he manipulates the phrase “exhaustive foreknowledge.” He claims Open theists deny such foreknowledge even though he has just established that Open theists believe settled future free decisions are logically contradictory and therefore non-existent. Open theists, in fact, do Not deny exhaustive foreknowledge; Open theists deny Exhaustive Definite Foreknowledge. The “Definite” part relates to settled, future, free choices. Since Open theists deny these are settled, they deny they are definite. They do not, however, deny that they are “exhaustive” or “foreknowledge.”

YourLogicalFallacyIs_GeneticFourth, Helseth quotes another critic of Open theism named Ronald Nash, who attributes incompatiblism15 to Aristotle in a classic guilt-by-association argument. No evidence that Aristotle is the father of incompatiblism is presented, even though it is not an indisputable fact. Oxford philosophy professor Terence H. Irwin writes,

“Some ascribe to Aristotle an ‘incompatibilist’ view of the relation between final causes and the underlying material and efficient causes. […] Probably, however, Aristotle takes a ‘compatibilist’ view. He seems to believe that even if every goal-directed process were wholly constituted by material processes, each of which can be explained in material-efficient terms, the final-causal explanation would still be the only adequate explanation of the process as a whole.”16

This is as good a time as any to address another smoke-and-mirrors technique Neo-Calvinists have been using to discredit Open theists for nearly 20 years—let’s call it “the pagan card.” Ever since the 1994 book that started it all, The Openness of God, Open theists have critiqued “classical theism.”17 In fact, Boyd, the subject of Helseth’s article, critiques classical theism quite often. He has traced the idea of changeless perfection back to Platonic philosophy and the influence of Middle Platonist philosophers like Plutarch and Plotinus on early Church theology.18 However, contrary to the Neo-Calvinist caricature, Boyd and other Open theists do Not reject classical theism due to the notion that all pagan philosophy is corrupt or simply because it is foreign to the New Testament. Open theists are not playing “the pagan card.” Here, for example, are John Sanders’ thoughts:

“…the early church fathers did not sell out to Hellenism… It was legitimate for them to work with the best Greek philosophical thinking of the day just as theologians today attempt to utilize the best learning in fields such as linguistics, psychology and philosophy. They desired to distinguish the Christian God from the gods of polytheism and though they found ideas in the philosophical discussions of deity useful for this end, they were also critical of the various philosophical conceptions of divinity.”19

Open theists do not advocate a purging of all philosophical elements foreign to the biblical tradition. Open theists simply advocate for critical analysis of those philosophies and comparison with the biblical data. The fact that Neo-Calvinists have lashed back at Open theists with guilt-by-association arguments involving Greek philosophers only further demonstrates their lack of understanding of the Open theist critique of classical theism, and the moral bankruptcy of the Neo-Calvinist response. Rather than critically assessing their own presuppositions, they would much rather simply accuse Open theists of having their own patron pagan philosophers looming in the background. This is the type of sad tricks people resort to when they feel they’re in danger of losing political power. It is not the sort of scholarship followers of Christ have any business engaging in.

YourLogicalFallacyIs_AdHomenemFifth, Helseth misrepresents the motives of Open theists like Boyd as if he himself has exhaustive definite knowledge of their hearts. He writes,

“New interpretations of the relationship between divine omniscience and human freedom are in order, they argue, not only because classical interpretations are lacking in exegetical sophistication, but also because traditional interpretations are no longer palatable to philosophically astute theologians living at the beginning of the twenty-first century.”

This is another attempt to convince readers Open theism is new and dangerous, but it is also a false portrayal of Open theist motivations—which Helseth cannot know other than what they themselves have written. There is of course no footnote citing where to find the motives Helseth ascribes to them, because no such source exists. Boyd, who the article specifically targets, clearly expresses how he came to hold the Open view in the very book Helseth cites most (God of the Possible). Boyd describes biblical study and theological inquiry as the beginning of his adoption of the Open view. He bases his acceptance of the view on its biblical, theological, devotional, and practical merits.20 He does not base his advocacy on whether it is “palatable.” Such a characterization is meant to imply that Neo-Calvinists like Helseth are stronger, have more stomach, for a God who predestines the Holocaust and Open theists are merely weak-minded or weak-willed. It’s a derisive remark that smacks of machismo. This is highly typical. Neo-Calvinists routinely portray themselves as tough guys who have a tough God. Only weak men or women would have a problem with theological determinism. This, of course, is ludicrous. Christian theologians have rejected determinism as far back as Church theological tradition goes. And of course Arminius rejected theological determinism and he certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype of a weak-minded postmodern who Neo-Calvinists like Helseth want readers to picture.

3. Sound Bites and the Problem of Evil:

The way discussion and debate takes place in U.S. American culture has devolved since the inventions of the Internet and the 24-hour cable news cycle. Whereas in the recent past there was at least some cultural reward for treating opponents with respect and giving their arguments a fair hearing, no such rewards remain. Since at least the 90s, theological debate in the U.S. evangelical academy has taken on far too much resemblance to shouting talk shows filled with partisan political pundits and the chatrooms and message boards which provide relative anonymity and outlet for vitriol. Worst of all, Christian scholars in this context have compromised their own integrity to prove their fellow Christians scholars wrong on theological matters which ultimately point to the God both parties worship. That is what took place in the remainder of this article written by Helseth. Tactics unbecoming of a Christian, let alone a Christian leader—one called to teach others—were practiced in a shameful yet unapologetic way.

YourLogicalFallacyIs_TexasSharpshooterFirst, Helseth sets out in section II to critique Greg Boyd’s theodicy—his theology of God’s relationship to evil—yet does not engage significantly with God at War, a book written years previously that specifically addresses the problem of evil within the larger framework of Boyd’s trinitarian warfare theodicy. Instead, Helseth focuses almost all his energy on responding to God of the Possible and a few scattered quotes from online discussion (I will address those shortly). This is either a blisteringly ignorant oversight or an intentionally dishonest tactic. God at War is far more geared toward the theologically academic, while God of the Possible is expressly written for laypersons. God at War deals extensively with the problem of evil, while God of the Possible devotes less than 10 pages!21 Furthermore, Letters from a Skeptic (Scripture Press, 1994), which Helseth cites, was likewise written for an audience who are not accustomed to debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It is a book which features letters Boyd wrote to his atheist father who was not a philosopher, nor a terribly educated man. The language Boyd uses isn’t technical nor meant primarily to be philosophically precise. The primary purpose was to provide intelligible and sound solutions to intellectual obstacles to his father surrendering his life to Jesus.

Critiquing Boyd’s theodicy on select pages from books for laypeople rather than an academically-geared book on the very subject you claim to address is a prime example of a deck-stacking argument or a “Texas sharpshooter fallacy.”

There is video on YouTube of Mark Driscoll using the Free Will Defense in a televised debate over the existence of Satan22, yet were I to exclusively use that footage to evaluate his overall theology, I would be forced to conclude he is an Arminian rather than one of the most vocal Neo-Calvinists in history. That is the type of misrepresentation Helseth commits in this article.

Second, further evidence that Helseth has not analyzed Boyd’s theodicy to any significant extent is abundantly clear from the fact that he makes no mention of the role Satan plays in Boyd’s theodicy. Satan is so central to Boyd’s answer to the problem of evil that One Month after this article was published, Boyd published a book entitled Satan and the Problem of Evil.23 That bears repeating: Helseth does not include Satan in Boyd’s theodicy while one month later Boyd publishes a book entitled Satan and the Problem of Evil. Yes, it was that kind of hack-job!

Completely contrary to Helseth’s characterization, Greg Boyd’s theodicy is not singularly rooted in his understanding of the nature of the future, or in Libertarian Free Will—though both are important beliefs for Boyd. Instead, Boyd’s theodicy is primarily rooted in his view that our world is caught in the cross-fire of an unseen, cosmic, spiritual battle between God and Satan, Light and darkness. If Helseth cared one iota about representing Boyd’s theodicy correctly, that would have been the first line in this article.

Here is Boyd in his own words,

“…it is quite peculiar that after Augustine, throughout the church’s history up to the present, very few thinkers conceived of Satan as being in any way relevant to, let alone central to, the solution to the problem of evil. It is remarkable that the one who in Scripture and in the earliest postapostolic fathers is depicted as the ultimate originator of evil and the one ultimately behind all the world’s horrors has been thoroughly ignored in discussions on the problem of evil. […]

By contrast, the New Testament and early postapostolic church always thought of the problem of evil in the context of spiritual warfare. The world is caught up in a cosmic battle and thus is saturated with horrifying suffering and diabolical evil. That is the final explanation for evil.”24

Third, Helseth engages in what I can only describe as sophomoric exploitation by quoting unpublished comments Boyd supposedly made in the comments of a “discussion thread” on his long retired website.25 There is no format for citing a comment submitted in a “discussion thread” nor any form of online message board, because such venues are not sources for academic journal articles like the one Helseth here writes. Helseth’s scholarship here is not only unprofessional, it is amazingly immature. He doesn’t even have the decency to write Boyd for an official statement of his view on the comments so that he could at least correct his spelling. I’m convinced that were the social media websites we now have in existence at the time of this article’s writing, Helseth would be writing about Boyd’s tweets and Facebook statuses. And if the ETS had any academic integrity, they would have rejected it for publishing.

4. Coercion, Causation, Parameters, and Prayer:

YourLogicalFallacyIs_StrawManThe crux of Helseth’s critique of Boyd’s theodicy is based entirely on a mischaracterization of his view. Based solely on a few instances where Boyd seems to contradict himself, Helseth ignores everything else Boyd has ever written and focuses exclusively on the few instances that serve his counter-argument. Specifically, Helselth claims Boyd’s theodicy makes room for divine coercive action when convenient thus rendering Open theism inconsistent and incoherent. He cites Boyd’s use of “freedom within parameters” as an analogy for how God can predict some future outcomes while facing multiple possibilities for others. The “parameters,” Helseth claims, are where Boyd compromises his position and affirms “unilateral” “coercion” by God. However, a critical reader will notice right away that Helseth is playing fast and loose with terms once again. For Boyd, “coerced” cannot mean that a choice is made by God rather than the free agent since the very essence of Incompatiblism is that free will and determinism are logically incompatible. For Boyd, “coerced” can only mean that all free agents have their relatively-autonomous freedom constrained by their causally-settled context. Human beings are empowered with contrary choice (Libertarian free will), but this does not mean human beings can make any decision at any time. Countless decisions are simply not available to anyone and many are not available to us due to the causally-linked past.

Jonah disobeys God. God wants him to go to Nineveh, but he runs the other direction. That is the power of contrary choice. Jonah did not march to Nineveh like a robot. Instead, God severely constrained Jonah’s freedom—placing him in the belly of a great fish. Regardless of whether you consider this narrative historically literal or metaphorical and/or mythical, the point remains the same: God constrained Jonah’s freedom. Now, were God’s actions “coercive”? That depends on your definition. If by “coercive,” you mean that God acted upon Jonah in order to influence his decision, then yes, God acted coercively. This is how Boyd might be comfortable saying God acts coercively. But Boyd is certainly not saying God removes a person’s free will (power of contrary choice). Jonah could have elected to stay in the belly of that fish and die. He did not have to repent; he chose to repent.

Or consider Paul’s testimony to the Athenians regarding divine parameters and human freedom:

“From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.” – Acts 17.26-27 NIV

Human beings cannot freely choose where they are to be born, others make that choice for us. Parents, civil authorities, nature all influence where a child is to be born. Recall that Jesus was born in Bethlehem for these reasons. These Paul describes as parameters which constrain our freedom, and attributes them ultimately to divine providence. However, Paul does not see these as the removal of all volition. Quite the opposite! Instead, Paul sees them as providing space for discovery of God, though God is everywhere. Paul does not think the future outcome of this search is settled because he states that a person would “perhaps reach out for [God]”. Note that this “perhaps” is also in the ESV!

It is difficult to imagine how Boyd could explain the concept of freedom within parameters more clearly than this,

“The notion that some of the future is open while some of it is settled seems contradictory to some people. I suspect this is because they are used to thinking in all-or-nothing categories about the future—either the future is totally open or totally settled. Since thy are certain from the Word of God that it cannot be totally open, they conclude that it is totally settled. This all-or-nothing way of thinking about the future is misguided. Far from being contradictory, or even just unusual, the view that the future is partly open and partly settled is the view we all assume unconsciously every time we make a decision.

For example, I am at the present time deliberating about whether or not I should travel to San Diego next month. In deliberating about this matter, I assume that it is up to me to decide when, where, and how I will travel. How could I honestly deliberate about this decision if I didn’t believe this? But notice, I also assume that much of the future is already settled and not up to me to decide. To deliberate about whether I should travel to San Diego or not, I have to assume that (among other things) San Diego will exist next month, that the laws of physics will operate as they do today, and that I will be basically the same person then as I am now. I cannot deliberate about issues that are up to me do decide without presupposing the settledness of many other issues that are not up to me to decide.This example illustrates that we cannot consider choices without presupposing that the future is partly open and partly settled—the very position that the open view advocates. If we believe that all of the future was open, we could not decide between options. If we believed that none of the future was open, we could not decide between options. Hence, the fact that we obviously do decide between options suggests that at some level we all assume that the future is partly open and partly closed.”26

Helseth’s chief critique of Boyd’s theodicy is that it makes God arbitrary and cruel because he does not intervene more often or when Helseth thinks God should. Helseth arrives at this conclusion after carefully stuffing his Boyd of Straw with sound bites designed to misrepresent Boyd’s view. He routinely accuses Boyd of contending that God acts “unilaterally.” This is patently false. One of the essential aspects of the Open theism Boyd advocates is that God has created a world inhabited by relatively-autonomous creatures—human beings—with whom God desires covenant relationship. This relationship that God desires is one of cooperation, mutuality. Scripture constantly compares God’s covenant relationship with his people to marriage, to the relationship between a Father or Mother and children. No relationships of greater intimacy, giving-and-receiving love, exist in human experience.

If Helseth was interested in representing Boyd’s view with even a modicum of scholarly respect, he would have acknowledged Boyd’s extensive doctrine of prayer. In Boyd’s theodicy, and theology of providence in general, God has hinged significant aspects of the future’s outcome on the voluntary participation of free agents. God’s nature is relational and so is God’s action in the world. John Polkinghorne, a world-renowned quantum physicist and theologian, is also an Open theist. He explains this concept of divine cooperation with humanity in prayer succinctly and poignantly,

“[Prayer] is a very curious thing in a way, because what are we doing? Are we drawing God’s attention to something God hadn’t noticed, or giving God a clever idea about what to do about it? Obviously none of those things are true, so what are we doing when we pray? I think we’re doing two things. One is: we have a certain room for maneuver, limited, but a certain room for maneuver to bring about the future. And I believe that God also has a providential power to bring about the future. And when we pray we’re offering our room for maneuver to be taken by God and used in alignment with God’s providential purposes. And I believe that things happen when human and divine wills are lined up in that sort of way, that would not be possible when they’re at cross-purposes with each other.I like to sometimes use the scientific metaphor of laser light. Laser light is powerful because it’s what physicists call coherent. All the waves are in step, all the crests come together and add up, all the troughs come together to add down, to maximum affect. Light that’s incoherent, the waves are out of step, a trough and a crest coincide and cancel each other out. I think we’re seeking a laser light coherence with God in prayer.”27

Like Polkinghorne, Boyd too believes much of the future hangs on whether or not free agents act—perhaps especially in prayer. In precisely the kind of “particular evil” scenario depicted by Helseth, Boyd specifically contends that prayer has the power to change the potential outcomes of such circumstances. He writes,

“In the open view account of [a potential future robbery in a park] …God could have seen that it was becoming more and more likely that you were going to take a stroll in the park where this robber was likely to be hanging out. He knows the thoughts and intentions of all individuals perfectly and can play them out in his mind like an infinitely wise chess master anticipating every possible combination of moves his opponent could ever make. It would thus be no problem for him to see the likelihood, in not (at this point) the certainty, that this ordeal would happen unless he intervened.Now let us assume you are a person who frequently talks and listens to God. What is more, you have family and friends who pray for you on a consistent basis. For the God who has designed the world so that prayer makes a great difference in how things transpire (see chapter 3), this is no minor consideration. Prayer opens the door for God to sovereignly alter what otherwise would come to pass. And the happy result is that a robbery that might have occurred was prevented.”28

YourLogicalFallacyIs_EmotionNowhere in Helseth’s accounting of Boyd’s theodicy does he mention the shared responsibility of those free agents upon whom God has leveraged significant say-so through prayer. His extended remarks about the plausibility of God preventing the Holacaust, aside from being one giant appeal to emotion, completely ignore the role prayer may or may not have factored into God’s “intervention.”

Boyd believes that God has chosen to act in the world in coherence with the wills of God’s people. In Nazi Germany, the sad fact Helseth ignores is that the Church was incredibly complicit in the evil.

5. Complexity, Ambiguity, and Boyd’s Theodicy

Finally, the primary reason Helseth’s critique of Boyd’s theodicy is a caricature is because conspicuously absent is Boyd’s robust discourse on the complexity of the universe and the ambiguity inherent in being finite creatures. Even a cursory survey of God at War reveals that Boyd’s primary explanations for the presence of evil are not Libertarian free will and the partly open nature of the future, but rather 1) Satan; 2) our world being caught in the middle of an unseen, cosmic, spiritual war; and 3) the extreme complexity of the creation and our utter inability to understand it as finite creatures.

“To be sure, individuals throughout the biblical narrative occasionally express convictions that come close to the classical-philosophical formulation of the problem of evil. […]What is interesting about all this, however, is that Scripture itself never teaches that these questions are based on an accurate understanding of God! […]

Indeed, as mentioned earlier, in a number of places Scripture seems to directly refute this position. The book of Job, I later argue, is a prolonged assault on just this erroneous ‘moralistic accountant’ conception of God (see chapter four). This false dichotomous assumption, reflected throughout this poetic dialogue, that Job’s sufferings are either Job’s fault or God’s fault is refuted by both the prologue of this book, which ascribes the afflictions to Satan (Job 1—2), and the divine monologues in which Yahweh does not take responsibility for Job’s afflictions but rather refers Job to the vastness and complexity of the creation, a creation that includes forces of chaos (such as Leviathan [chap. 41] and Behemouth [40:15-24] which need to be tamed.)”29

Any serious scholarly critique of Boyd’s theodicy would necessarily engage his views on Satan, spiritual warfare, and the complexity of the universe. Helseth fails to significantly address any of them.

6. Conclusion:

Helseth’s article in the journal of the ETS was one of the earliest examples of what has now become a routine caricature of Open theism by Neo-Calvinists. His is like a prototype, only models 10 years later have not improved. Embedded in today’s attacks on Open theism are found all the same fallacies and scholarship tricks:

  • Straw Man fallacy
  • Texas Sharpshooter fallacy (aka deck-stacking)
  • Appeal to emotion
  • Genetic fallacy
  • Black and White fallacy (aka false dichotomy)
  • No True Scotsman fallacy

To date, now nearly 20 years since The Openness of God, no serious scholarly critique of Open theism has produced evidence of significant flaws. All attempts have fallen flat and only fear of “controversy” has kept Open theism from becoming a more mainstream evangelical position. Nevertheless, Open theism continues to gain proponents in the evangelical theological academy despite the Neo-Calvinists attempts to prevent its influence. The future is not entirely settled with regard to Open theism. We’ll just have to wait and see if it will remain a minority position.


  1. The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Intervarsity Press, 1994) was written by Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger.
  2. John Sanders includes extensive research into historic proponents of what he calls “dynamic omniscience” in his book The God Who Risks (Intervarsity Press, 2007, Second Edition), chapter 5: “Divine Relationality in the Christian Tradition.” Greg Boyd has also highlighted many early proponents on his blog, and will attempt to compile a comprehensive survey in his forthcoming book, The Myth of a Blueprint.
  3. “Neo-Calvinism” or “New Calvinism” is a recent movement of fundamentalist Christian authors and ministry practitioners in the US and other Westernized nations who equate the “five points of Calvinism,” abbreviated T. U. L. I. P., with “Reformed” theology, “orthodox” theology, and “the Gospel.” They are overwhelmingly white, male, and the vast majority reject the ordination of women, espousing “Complementarianism.”. John Piper, Al Mohler, and Mark Driscoll are noted representatives of this movement.
  4. In 2000, Greg Boyd’s Open theism came under scrutiny at the Annual Meeting of the Baptist General Conference while he was a faculty member at Bethel. Two resolutions were passed. The first was specifically against Open theism, and the second was specifically in favor of keeping Boyd as a professor. John Piper was very disappointed with this decision who wanted Boyd ousted for his Open theism. In 2002, Roger Nicole, a Calvinist Baptist scholar, presented the motion to investigate Pinnock and Sanders’ Open theism on the grounds that he claimed it prevents them from affirming the ETS’s most important criteria for membership: the affirmation of biblical inerrancy. John Piper supported the motion and it passed. Incidentally, one does not have to affirm that the Scriptures as we have them today are inerrant to gain acceptance into the ETS. As their official statement contends, one only has to affirm that they were inerrant “in the autographs.” Since no autographs have ever been found, affirming such a tenet requires little if any evidence or research, but is instead a cultural and political litmus test.
  5. See, “Evangelical Inquisitions“, “Why open theism doesn’t even matter (very much)“, and “Is Open Theism a Type of Arminianism?“, Against Calvinism (Zondervan, 2011).
  6. Roger Olson: “Open theism: a test case for evangelicals
  7. ON DIVINE AMBIVALENCE: OPEN THEISM AND THE PROBLEM OF PARTICULAR EVILS
  8. Sanders, The God Who Risks, p.141.
  9. “Relational Theology” is an umbrella term that covers a broad spectrum of theologies that are all related to one another by their common values of relationship, freedom, and love. Examples of Relational theologies include, but are not limited to: missional theologies, feminist and/or womanist theologies, Pentecostal and/or charismatic theologies, liberation and/or postcolonial theologies, Wesleyan theology, process theology, open theology, Arminian and/or holiness theologies, trinitarian theologies. For more, see Relational Theology: A Contemporary Introduction edited by Brint Montgomery, Thomas Jay Oord, and Karen Winslow.
  10. Greg Boyd, God of the Possible (Baker, 2000), p.15-16.
  11. Clark Pinnock, Most Moved Mover (Baker, 2001), p.99-100.
  12. Sanders, The God Who Risks, p.15.
  13. Greg Boyd, “The Open-Theism View,” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views (Intervarsity Press, 2001), p.14-15.
  14. Sanders, The God Who Risks, p.167-168.
  15. Incompatibilism is the philosophical position that determinism and free agency are incompatible.
  16. Terence H. Irwin, Aristotle: “Causes” (Rutledge, 1998).
  17. “Classical theism” is that stream of Christian theological tradition which attempts concord between aspects of classical philosophical theories, such as Platonism for example, and Christian theology or the biblical witness. The single most central issue in this concord is the static nature of God in Greek philosophical thought versus the dynamic nature of God in Hebraic thought and Scripture. Philo and Augustine are prime examples of this stream. John Sanders writes a historical-theological critique of classical theism in The Openness of God (chapter 2) and Greg Boyd also critiques classical theism in God of the Possible (p.22, 130-131). He writes, “In a forthcoming volume, I demonstrate historically that most of the responsibility for the canonization of the ‘timeless’ model of perfection in the Christian theological tradition rests on St. Augustine. He was in this respect strongly influenced not only by Platonism but by Stoicism and Manichaeism as well. See G. Boyd, The Myth of a Blueprint (Downers Grove, Ill., InterVarsity Press, forthcoming).” (p.172)
  18. See: “Random Updates“, “Hellenistic Philosophy and the Problem of Chalcedon“, “The Paradox of Plutarch and Early Christian Theology“, “Plutarch’s Insightful Warfare Worldview“, “Spiritual Warfare and the ‘Eternal Now’
  19. Sanders, The God Who Risks, p.140.
  20. Boyd, God of the Possible, p.7-8, 10-11.
  21. 98-103, 135-136, 153-156.
  22. See “Nightline Face Off: Does Satan Exist? Part 3/10”  (From the beginning to ~1:19).
  23. Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil: Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (Intervarsity Press, 2001) October.
  24. Boyd, God at War (Intervarsity Press, 1997), p.56.
  25. Footnote 32, p.502.
  26. Boyd, God of the Possible, p.32-33.
  27. John Polkinghorne, “Prayer seeking understanding“.
  28. Boyd, God of the Possible, p.152-153.
  29. Boyd, God at War, p.51-52.