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Evil and the God Who is Love: A Review of The Uncontrolling Love of God by Thomas Jay Oord

When Blueprints Fail

In 15 years of full-time Christian ministry, I had not presided over a funeral service until yesterday. The funeral was for a 24 year old man who was brutally stabbed to death a few days before Christmas by a complete stranger.

He died mere hours before he was due to enter an expensive in-patient rehab program, to which he’d miraculously gained admission, after years of battling alcoholism. And from what I can gather from the police report given to the family, the young man’s murderer was an L.A. school teacher.

The sheer absurdity and brutality of his murder continues to deeply sadden and confound me. How could something like this have even happened?

The day before the funeral, I met with and listened to the victim’s mother as she told me just how completely devastating his death has been for her. She is a single mother of three and he was her oldest son. While I was listening and praying with her, she asked me a critical question that should give any sincere minister pause. She asked, “Do you think he was destined to die this way or do you think it was just bad luck?”

How would you have answered her?

As I imagine how pastors and ministers all over the United States would engage with that question, I’m deeply concerned that many are shamefully ill-equipped. They’ve been sold a model of divine providence that is not only biblical unfounded but also ethically bankrupt. Far too many well-meaning Christian ministers in the United States today would actually tell this grieving mother it was God’s will that her son die the way he did. Others, aware of how cruel such a statement would be, would attempt to find some creative way to avoid answering her directly, while secretly believing her son was predestined to be murdered.

John Piper, a famous Calvinist pastor revered by thousands of American Christians, was once asked his thoughts on the brutal violence depicted in the Hebrew Bible—particular the killing of women and children noncombatants in holy wars. His response was chilling and grotesque:

“It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die. God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.”

Yes, pastor Piper claims that when someone dies because they’ve been murdered (shot to death, for example), that is necessarily God’s will because, well, “God governs.”

Some will write Piper’s statement off as an extreme example. But, I’m afraid the reality is, this type of theological determinism is far more common than many American Christians are either aware of or willing to admit. This type of “blueprint theology,” the conception of divine providence as meticulous omni-causality, has grown in popularity due to the ministries of Neo-Puritans like John Piper, John MacArthur, and Mark Driscoll. And, if the next generation of ministers are trained with this view, the pastoral ramifications are potentially disastrous.

A Timely Book from a Well-qualified Thinker

It’s tragedies like the murder of this 24 year old man that make Dr. Thomas Jay Oord’s latest book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (hereafter, ULG), so important and timely. Dr. Oord is one of the most well-known and prolific American theologians in the Wesleyan tradition. He has written and contributed to over twenty books on philosophy, theology, science, and more. He has served in academic moderator roles and consulted for groups including the American Academy of Religion (AAR), Biologos, and the Wesleyan Philosophical Society.

I’ve had the privilege of knowing Tom since 2007, when we met at a conference he co-directed in Quincy, MA (just outside of Boston) called the “Open Theology and Science” conference. I was a bright-eyed seminary student excited to meet the authors of the ground-breaking 1994 book The Openness of God. Since then, I was honored to co-direct an Open theology conference with Tom that focused on the implications of Open theology for the church in 2013.

I haven’t always agreed with all his views, but Tom has consistently challenged and inspired my thinking over the years and I am very grateful for his scholarship and friendship.

Seeking a Better Solution to the Problem of Evil

ULG opens with several accounts of events Oord calls “genuine evil.”

Oord recounts the story of a woman who was killed when a stone was flung from a truck, came through the windshield of her car, and killed her instantly. He also tells the story of a Congolese woman who was raped and brutalized by militiamen who also killed her husband and children in front of her.

One of these chilling stories hit particularly close to home for me. In 2013, I lived in West Cambridge and saw the police in paramilitary uniforms and armored personnel units rolling through Watertown during the hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers. It terrified my wife and children. We also personally knew runners who missed being in the blast radius of the bombings by minutes, if not seconds.

Oord uses these chilling accounts to establish the reality of evil, and the urgency of a more plausible solution to the problem of evil. As an Open and Relational theologian, he’s already part of a tradition of thought that has made significant progress in this regard. The “Free Will Defense,” as it’s sometimes called, provides a not insignificant amount of relief. However, Oord contends it remains nevertheless insufficient. In this book, he will propose a more radical solution—one that will make many uncomfortable, but will provide much needed comfort to others.

The Science of Randomness and Free Will

One of the best features of ULG is it’s integration of science, philosophy, theology and pastoral sensibilities. When I was a seminary student in Boston, I learned an approach to urban ministry that differs from the traditional approach taught in many evangelical seminaries. Instead of viewing the city as a machine, like a toaster, that can be disassembled and reassembled without harm, the city is conceptualized as an organic, “living system” more like a cat. While a toaster may be able to be repaired with conventional mechanical tools, a cat must be operated on by a surgeon using delicate instruments, because the subject is alive.

What this approach did for me was provided a framework for understanding the complexities of the city. Linear, cause-and-effect approaches to urban ministry are relics of a bygone era. We now know that the world is far more complex than we previously thought.

This is where Oord’s thinking future-proofs Open and Relational theology. It combines the latest in philosophy and science on the subjects of randomness and indeterminacy. While Newtonian physics was easily compatible with “blueprint theology,” it falls flat when confronted with the “world of true becoming” that has been discovered by quantum physics.

Oord has worked with some of the world’s leading thinkers in this area, including Sir Dr. John Polkinghorne, who is perhaps the most prolific and profound thinker on science and faith alive today.

Oord argues that randomness is real. Indeterminacy is not a lack of sufficient data, but an actual aspect of reality. This is an important part of Open and Relational theology. In this broad category of theologies, the world is conceptualized not a static place, but a dynamic one. Dr. Polkinghorne calls it a “world of true becoming.”

If this is the case, as Oord argues, then the way is opened for genuine agency—“free will.” The conception of free will Oord, as an Open and Relational theologian, proposes is called “Libertarian.” It contrasts with “Compatibilist” free will. Libertarian free will is the power of choosing agents to deliberate between and actualize real options which emerge in a world populate by moral, rational, and sentient beings. Compatibilist free will does not recognize the power of contrary choice, that options are legitimately open to choosing agents other than what they in fact actualize. As he succinctly writes, “A free being is an agent who chooses among options.”

In ULG, Oord argues that the world is made up of both choices and constraints on our freedom. Agents are not free to choose anything they can imagine, but agents are free to choose between the available options. This conception of free will, and only this one, provides the necessary framework for moral and ethical outcomes. Once again pinpoint precise in his language, he writes, “We cannot be morally responsible unless we are freely response-able.”

This is a cornerstone of Ood’s argument. Unless we understand moral responsibility, we will misunderstand God’s providence.

Problematizing Divine Permission

When God is brought into the puzzle of evil, often this formula is used to make providence problematic: if evil is real, either God is not all-loving or God is not all-powerful. Classical theism has snubbed its nose at this problem in one way or another and continued to assert both the omni-benevolence and omnipotence of God. Some simply say that evil is necessary for God’s goodness and power to be displayed. This would be John Piper’s answer. Evil is as much under the control of God as goodness. God decrees evil. Problem solved, he thinks. Others construct appeals to mystery. Oord cites the Bible verse commonly quoted out of context, “God’s ways are not our ways.”

But Oord, like many others, is unsatisfied with either approach.

Oord is perhaps just as unsatisfied with the language of divine “permission.” Some theologies, in an attempt to salvage God’s omni-benevolence, have proposed that God is not responsible for evil because creaturely agents have free will. God merely “permits” evil to exist. But one of Oord’s main goals in this book is to show that even this approach is ethically dubious and problematic. He sets out to problematize even the “permissive” approach to providence to which many in his own Open and Relational camp ascribe. He writes,

“Careful readers may have also noticed I have often talked about God failing to prevent evil. Some people think they solve the problem by simply saying God gives freedom and agency to creatures, and, therefore, God does not cause evil. Creatures effect evil, they say, so God should not be blamed.

I also believe God is not the primary cause of evil. But to solve the problem of evil, we must say more than this. After all, a perfectly loving individual would do whatever possible to prevent—not just fail to cause—genuine evil. A person does not have to cause evil directly to be morally culpable for failing to prevent it.”

By holding the feet of those who use “permission” language to the fire, Oord has upped the ante. This sets a much higher standard of moral righteousness on our model of providence. This was what actually made the book exciting for this reader.

How will Oord solve the problem?

The Landscape of Providence

Every attempt to “solve” the problem of evil entails an implicit model of providence. In ULG, Oord makes explicit his model of providence in his proposal for a solution to the problem of evil. But, before he does that, he provides readers with a very helpful overview of the theological landscape. “Models of Providence” is perhaps the most helpful chapter in all of ULG.

Besides being a gifted philosopher and teacher, Dr. Oord is also a very talented photographer.

From surveying his work over many years, it appears that one of his favorite things to capture is a beaming sunset over an beautifully textured landscape. He goes on long hikes into deserts and mountains to compose the perfect shot at the perfect moment. Dr. Oord’s photographic instincts mirror his theological proposal in ULG in many ways. In a timely and winsome way, he has composed a snapshot of providence that is a shining ray of light in the very textured landscape of theologies of divine providence. Chapter four frames the terrain in a way that allows Oord to distinguish his model from its closest comrades. On one end of the landscape are the rocky mountains of omnicausality. They are jagged, treacherous, and inhospitable for human residence. Besides the obvious way this model calls into question the goodness of God since it makes God the “ultimate cause over every rape, torture, disease and terrorist attack,”

Oord also points out its logical inconsistency. He writes, “…it makes no sense to say that God totally causes something and that creatures also cause it.”

On the other side of the frame are the Weeping Willow trees of appeals to mystery. Appeals to mystery are comparable to Weeping Willows because they appear sad and are frail. I loved what Oord said about this model: “…we should be wary of worshipping the entirely inscrutable God because we never know who the devil he may be!”

Most models of providence occupy the center of the frame. But even toward the center of the shot, there is much texture. The closest comrade to Oord’s proposal is the one employed by most Open theists. It is the model of divine providence Oord calls “God is voluntarily self-limited.”

Oord helpfully summarizes the pros and cons of this model:

“In sum, I find the model of providence as voluntarily self-limited attractive in many ways. I like that it says love motivates God to give freedom/agency to others and to uphold the regularities/laws of the universe. But I can’t embrace the model fully because its view of voluntary divine self-limitation leads to a major problem: If God has the ability not to give freedom/agency or not to uphold the regularities/laws of the universe, God should sometimes use those abilities, in the name of love, to prevent genuine evil. A loving God would become un-self-limited, if God were able, in order to stop evil. Claiming that a God capable of control nevertheless permits evil leaves crucial questions unanswered.”

This criticism of the voluntary divine self-limitation view is powerfully damning. How can one claim that God is love, has the ability to prevent evil if God so chose, and yet has not prevented such horrifying evil as have been described? As Oord indicates, this model leaves too many people scratching their heads asking, “what kind of love is that?”

A Friendly, Open Debate

One proponent of the voluntary divine self-limitation model of providence is a friend of Oord’s. He and Oord have collaborated on a number of projects, including the OPEN 2013 theology conference at which Oord and I were co-directors. Dr. John Sanders was a fellow keynote speaker with Oord (along with Greg Boyd) at that conference, and has was also a participant in the 2007 Open Theology and Science conference where I first met both of them. Dr. Sanders is one of the few Open theists who have written a full-length monograph on Open theology. His is entitled The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, and it’s one of the most comprehensive.

Both Sanders and Oord are committed to a conception of God that is centered around God’s dynamic relational love for the world. Both Sanders and Oord also agree that the future is partly ‘open,’ meaning partly made up of possibilities/contingencies that are yet to be actualized. Both Sanders and Oord agree that God’s nature is love and that Jesus reveals God fully. However, as Oord shows in chapter six, “Does Love Come First?”, Sanders and he differ on the logical priority of God’s nature of love and God’s sovereign will.

“Up to this point in my summary of Sanders’s version of open and relational theology, I completely agree with him. I might articulate some points slightly differently, but we both endorse main themes of open and relational theology. We agree on so much!

I disagree, however, with Sanders’s view of how God’s love and power relate. I also disagree when Sanders says God allows or permits genuine evil. These disagreements matter when it comes to thinking about how God acts providentially in a world of randomness and evil.”

Oord’s critique of Sanders’s view is weighty. He follows Sanders’s logic to its end and arrives at the conclusion Sanders excludes. Both Oord and Sanders agree that God’s nature of love is the kind of love that does not coerce. As Sanders puts it, “love does not force its own way on the beloved.”

Oord agrees. But Oord questions why Sanders is unwilling to follow his own logic to its end. If God’s nature is love, and love does not “force its own way on the beloved,” then how can Sanders conclude that God sometimes intervenes to control creatures against their will? Would this not be an action precluded by the constraints of God’s nature? Here’s how Oord puts it:

“If God’s preeminent attribute is love and love invites cooperation without forcing its own way, however, it makes little sense to say ‘sovereign freedom’ allows God to create in an unloving way. It makes little sense, for instance, to say that God voluntarily decided against ‘exercising meticulous providence.’ If love comes first and love does not force others to comply, it makes little sense to say ‘God is free to sovereignly decide not to determine everything.’ If love comes first, God cannot exercise meticulous providence or determine everything.

To put it in question form using Sander’s [sic] own language, why should we think  a loving God who ‘does not force the beloved’ is truly free ‘to tightly control every event that happens’? Why should we think a loving God is free to control others entirely, even if God never exercised that freedom? If love doesn’t force the beloved and God is love, God can’t force the beloved.”

Oord has a strong point. What value has it to say God is love, and that love is noncoercive, if we also say that God can be coercive any time God wants? The proposition that “God is love” is stripped of all meaningfulness. What kind of “love” would that be?

God’s Kenotic Essence

While the voluntary divine self-limitation model of providence is the closest to Oord’s own, he nevertheless makes it clear where the two differ. In his model, God’s nature is in fact the constraint on God’s power and will. God is essentially kenotic. So, understandably Oord calls his model of providence “Essential Kenosis.”

While those already familiar with kenosis may recognize it as a subject confined to christology, the history of theological exploration does not bear that out. For example, in his book The Paradox of a Suffering God,

African theologian Amuluche Gregory Nnamani highlights the development of kenotic theology throughout church history. In particular, Russian Orthodox theologian Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov, American philosopher Geddes MacGregor, Catholic theologians Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, and even German theologian Jürgen Moltmann espoused forms of the “essential kenosis” view. Each affirm Oord’s central thesis, that God’s nature is “uncontrolling” (i.e. kenotic) love, and that God cannot deny God’s own kenotic essence.

However, Oord does offer a unique formulation of this view and makes it far more accessible to the layperson. Oord uses common parlance to explain esoteric theological concepts better than most theologians. For example, he writes,

“God’s nature of love logically precedes God’s sovereign will. This means that God’s self-limiting kenosis derives primarily from God’s eternal and unchanging nature of love and not from voluntary divine decisions. Because God’s nature is love, God always gives freedom, agency and self-organization to creatures, and God sustains the regularities of nature.”

What’s important to note about the logic of Oord’s proposal is that God’s nature of love constrains what God is capable of doing. This is where those with leanings toward classical theism will begin to feel very uncomfortable. They will want God to be unlimited, even by God’s own nature. But Oord’s case is sound biblically and logically.

What the Bible Says God Can’t Do

It may come as a shock to classical theists, but it’s true that Scripture says God’s actions are constrained by God’s nature. Scripture says that God cannot lie because God’s nature is truth (Numbers 23.19; Hebrews 6.18; John 1.14, 14.6, 17.17). Scripture also says that God cannot be capricious because God’s nature is faithful (I Samuel 15.29; Psalm 89.35). Scripture also says that God cannot change like shifting shadows because God is light (James 1.17; I John 1.5). What all these constrains imply is what Oord makes explicit: “God’s nature of love logically precedes God’s sovereign will.”

In fact, as Oord makes explicit, Open theism, like all Christian theology, looks to Jesus as the fullest revelation of God’s character and nature. Oord quotes the late Clark Pinnock, whose Open and Relational theology was explicitly Christ-centered and Cross-centered.

“ ‘God’s true power is revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ,’ says Pinnock. ‘In this act of self-sacrificing, God deploys power in the mode of servanthood, overcoming enemies not by annihilating them but by loving them.’ This means that ‘the power of love is the power that wills genuine relationships.’ and this view ‘is certainly not a diminished or inferior view of power.’ ”

Oord’s proposal follows in the tradition of postconservative evangelical theologians like Pinnock in allowing Scripture to challenge the models of providence that have been constructed by classical theism. Jesus breaks these models wide open.

“…theologians today use kenosis primarily to describe how Jesus reveals God’s nature. Instead of imagining how God may have relinquished attributes when becoming incarnate, many now think Jesus’ kenosis tells us who God is and how God acts.”

And, once again, Oord points to the cross of Jesus as God’s supreme self-disclosure in history:

“We especially see God’s noncoercive power revealed in the cross of Christ, which suggests that God’s power is cruciform…”

Oord’s model of providence is cruciform-centric, and that makes Oord’s model both thoroughly biblical and thoroughly Christian.

The Distance from Process

Some of Oord’s more well-read and studied readers will wonder what, if anything, separates Oord’s “Essential Kenosis” view from Process theology, which is adamantly rejected by conservative evangelicals who believe it limits God to an unbiblical extent. Oord answers this concern in a very brief statement—perhaps too brief.

“The other view standing near essential kenosis says external forces or worlds essentially limit God. This view gives the impression that outside actors and powers not of God’s making hinder divine power. Or it says God is subject to laws of nature, imposed on God from without. God is caught in the clutches of exterior authorities and dominions, and these superpowers restrict sovereignty.

This view seems to describe God as a helpless victim to external realities. Some criticize this view as presenting a ‘finite God’ because outside forces or imposed laws curb divine activity. While I think we have good reasons to think God’s power is limited in certain respects, this view places God under foreign authority. This God is too small.

Essential kenosis stands between these two views. It rejects both voluntary self-limitation of God and the view that external powers, gods, worlds or laws limit God. Essential kenosis says limitations to divine freedom derive from God’s nature of love.”

Conservative evangelical readers who find Process theology repulsive may not find Oord’s disclaimer sufficient. They may demand more distance. However, I think Oord does sufficiently detail the specific distinction between his view and Process: from where derives the limitations on divine sovereignty. Process says the laws of nature external to God; Essential kenosis says from God’s own nature.

Those Pesky Miracles

All of this talk of constraints on the sovereign will of God and limitations on God’s ability to intervene in the world naturally lead to the question that will be stirring in the minds of any knowledgable reader by this point: What about miracles?

Traditionally, miracles have been conceptualized as divine “intervention” in the world. In fact, some have defined a miracle as the violation of the laws of nature by God. But Oord’s model of providence will not allow such definitions. But neither are such definitions logically necessary or biblically warranted. Theologians like N. T. Wright constantly remind us that the distinction between what is called the “natural” world and the “supernatural” is an artificial divide invented during the so-called Enlightenment. Scriptural theology knows no such distinction. In fact, Wright and others would argue that such a distinction is a heresy in the same vein as Gnosticism. It is dualistic, and runs the risk of denying the goodness of creation or the reality of the Incarnation. However, Oord does not heavily lean on this kind of argumentation. Instead, he chooses to argue positively for the cooperative nature of miracles by pointing out that all the miracles detailed in the Bible involved willing agents who cooperated with God. Even the miracle of the Incarnation famously involves the “yes” of Mary to God’s plan.

In chapter eight, “Miracles and God’s Providence,” Oord works hard to assuage readers’ fears that he has cut miracles out of his model of providence. He clearly hasn’t. However, when it comes to how God providentially works with inanimate matter, it was not always clear why God could not coercively control it. In all the strong argumentation this book provides, this chapter felt the least strong.

Conclusion: Deepening the Discussion

Open and Relational theology has long provided adherents a more coherent model of divine providence than theologically deterministic models. In fact, Open theism in particular has provided many Arminians with a much need dose of logical consistency. However, Open theism has long struggled with its familial relationship to conservative evangelical theology, which has caused it to seem defensive at times. Perhaps this is an expected response to the alarmist classical theists who loudly condemned it as heresy. But Tom Oord’s project is not defensive. He is willing to follow the logic and the biblical data to the most consistent conclusion. He will no doubt receive criticism from both conservative evangelicals who wish to preserve their view of divine sovereignty as unilateral coercive force, and from Process theologians who will find his proposal insufficient for other reasons. Regardless, what is clear is that The Uncontrolling Love of God furthers the conversations and confronts all sides with important questions about our models of divine providence and their implications for the problem of evil. I’m very grateful for this contribution to that on-going discussion, and highly recommend this book to anyone exploring these subjects.

If I had one criticism for Oord, it would be that Open and Relational theologies like this “Essential Kenosis” continue to conceptualize providence and the problem of evil apart from important aspects of human life like community (ecclesiology), politics, missions, and social justice. I would have liked to see Oord at least point in those directions. Essential kenosis has the potential to be a liberating model for those who have all too often been the victims of societies that are emulating a “sovereignty” of coercive and violent control.

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PDF version available at Academia.edu

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.

_____________________

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.”

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.