Andrew Wilson wrote a blog post entitled “Responding to Open Theism in Fourteen Words.” Here is my fourteen word response:
According to his bio, Wilson is a pastor at King’s Church in London, which is a part of some group called the “Evangelical Alliance.” A 30-second glance at that group’s statement of faith shows they are decidedly Protestant in their theology.
Wilson would have us believe Christians didn’t understand justification for 1,500 years before Protestants came along and explained it. How odd then that he would question the apparent absence of Open theism from church history. Protestants don’t get to play the “orthodoxy” card.
Furthermore, his specific claim is false: “Even the most sympathetic advocates of open theism admit that it is all-but-impossible to find in the first eighteen centuries of the Church’s history. (The Trinitarian heretic Faustus Socinus is the somewhat uncomfortable exception that proves the rule.)”
Open theists have actually found examples of theologians and church leaders throughout church history who espouse the partial openness of the future. Dr. John Sanders’ website is one of several places online where such resources can be found. http://drjohnsanders.com/affirmed-dynamic-omniscience-open-future-history/
As it happens, John Sanders has already addressed Wilson’s criticism of Open theism’s alleged divergence from “orthodoxy” in his book, The God Who Risks:
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.
Not only is 9.11 a number that immediately harkens to mind a horrific event which, for millions of Americans, called into question God’s goodness and power in the face of human free will to do evil, it is also the biblical reference of a verse in Ecclesiastes which says “chance” happens to all people.
I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.
For the non-Open theist, “chance” is unexplainable. Even the Classical Arminian has to do acrobatics to explain how “chance” is compatible with Exhaustive Definite Foreknowledge. Is it really “chance” if God has definitely foreknown its certainty for all eternity?
So, it seems that citing one “problem text” for either side of this debate is not a conclusive rebuttal. Both sides have their proof-texts. Wilson’s citation of Psalm 139 does not end the debate.
Babies “go to heaven” (which is an embarrassingly crude phrase for a pastor to use in a post about theology) because they are innocent. Even hardened Calvinists squirm at the notion that unbaptized babies “go to hell” because of their depraved natures. That’s why most just refuse to believe it—theological consistency be damned!
Thankfully, Arminians and Open theists don’t have that problem. Most Arminians and Open theists believe in an “age of accountability” (cf. Deut. 1.39) after which persons are held responsible for their part in sin. Babies who die are united with God because they are not yet accountable. Little ones, according to Jesus, have to be made to stumble by others. (cf. Mt. 18.6)
Wilson’s fourth objection backfires. Theological determinists (aka, non-Open theists) are guilty of the same sort of evidence-denial of which Wilson accuses Open theists. Show them a passage in which God regrets or God is frustrated by an outcome God didn’t anticipate, and the excuses begin to fly. Only, with theological determinists, there are a lot more passages that need to be explained away. There are all the times God changes God’s mind. There are all the times God gets new information. There are all the times things don’t turn out the way the prophets predicted. Oops!
The Open theist, on the other hand, is perfectly justified saying “that’s one of the things that God does know” since it is the Open theist who states upfront that the future is Partly “open” and Partly “closed.” While Open theism accounts for the partly “closed” parts of the future depicted in the Text, the theological determinist has no account for the partly open portions. That’s not a problem for the Open theist; that’s a problem for the theological determinist.
In Wilson’s fifth objection, he argues that Open theism has a theodicy problem. He writes, “If X is evil, and God could stop X miraculously but chooses not to, is he not somehow choosing to allow X? If not, why not?”
This raises an important question in my mind: What’s the alternative? Is Wilson suggesting that if Open theists say that God allows some evil to happen and not other evil, God is unjust? Sure, maybe. There is also the possibility we just don’t know why some evil events happen and others are prevented. (cf. Job) Greg Boyd has actually written extensively about this in his book Is God to Blame?
The alternative proposed by theological determinists is exponentially worse. Those evil events were not allowed by God, they are determined by God. The problem Wilson describes for Open theists is not just a problem for theological determinists—it’s devastating. Such a god would be nothing less than a monster.
Wilson’s sixth objection is that God is holding everything in existence, so God is willing everything. Thomas Jay Oord has devoted an entire book to a conception of divine providence that has not occurred to Wilson for a very simple reason. Wilson can only conceptualize power as coercive. Either God is coercively causing something or it doesn’t happen. But, Oord utilizes the biblical concept of kenosis (self-giving) to conceptualize God’s power as love. God is love, not brute force. God’s nature is such that God is “uncontrolling.” God gives to creation its own autonomy through self-giving love. God is kenotic, as Jesus reveals (cf. Phil. 2).
Wilson’s seventh objection is precisely the same objection as the one Wilson posed in his fourth, “Exceptions.” It is in fact just a specific example of an “exception.” Therefore, see “Partly” above.
In Wilson’s eighth objection, he uses a subjective feeling of “comfort” he derives from his view of divine determinism. This is utterly bizarre to me. It strikes me precisely the opposite. When I have encountered circumstances that are “intensely difficulty” (as Wilson puts it), I have often thought “If God had definitely foreknown this would happen to me as a certainty, why would God not prevent it from happening?” This presents a new problem. If God definitely foreknew something awful were going to happen to me as a certainty, then there is no way God could prevent it. God would be powerless against God’s own foreknowledge! At least that’s the dilemma for Classical Arminians. There is no such dilemma for Calvinists. For them, God didn’t just fore-know it would happen—God fore-ordained it to happen. I am not someone who draws comfort from the idea that God either fore-knew and could not prevent me from suffering or else fore-ordained me to suffer. The emotion such thoughts evoke in me is not comfort, but terror. And I am quite concerned for those who would derive comfort from such ideas.
Wilson’s ninth objection is the same objection as his eighth, “comfort,” which, as we just witnessed, failed. It’s not comforting that God causes people to suffer, it’s terrifying.
In Wilson’s tenth objection, he proposes that conflicts within the Text between whether God was behind some event or Satan are only resolved if we collapse Satan into God. This seems like an odd strategy to me. By Wilson’s logic, when the Text says both God and Satan inspired some event, it is only proper to assume that it was God in both. But, one could just as easily and logically assume it was Satan in both.
Furthermore, Wilson claims God “moved” Judas to betray Jesus without any scripture to back it up. My guess is he would twist Acts 4.28 to support his claim, as Calvinists are want to do, but such a strategy only collapses Judas into God as well. Judas didn’t really do anything—God/Satan did it.
Wilson also strangely cites Paul’s thorn in the flesh as another example of both God and Satan doing something. But that’s not at all implied in the Text. Instead, what the Text says is that the “messenger” is evil, not good at all, but that even though it is evil, it can be subverted by God and Paul to create greater dependency on God’s grace. That God can subvert what Satan meant for evil, bringing good out of it, doesn’t make God and Satan buddies.
All of Wilson’s examples only seem problematic for Open theists if you share Wilson’s hermeneutics. Wilson wants to pass his hermeneutics off as the only proper ones, but they aren’t.
In Wilson’s eleventh objection, he claims that love cannot be inherently risky, as Boyd claims, since there is no risk in the Trinity. However, Wilson’s objection (again) lacks context. Boyd is specifically saying that love between autonomous agents requires risk. In order for “love requires risk” to fail when applied to the Trinity, Wilson would have to be a Tri-theist. Only if the Persons of the Trinity are autonomous agents, and not essentially united in character and nature (as orthodox Trinitarianism holds), could Boyd’s love and freedom axiom fail. It’s not risky for the Trinity to love because the Trinity is love. It is risky for the Trinity to love creation, because creation is not the Trinity and the Trinity is not creation.
When a group wants to assert its dominance over members who question the group’s deeply held beliefs, it often resorts to shaming them into submission. It portrays those who raise questions as rebellious and morally suspect. There must be something wrong with them, it is insinuated, if they are not willing to affirm our deeply held beliefs. This is the essence of Wilson’s twelfth objection. He essentially says, “There must be something wrong with Open theists if they question the traditional view of hell.” Some of us clearly remember how this played out for Rob Bell. Once a bright light in American Evangelicalism, he ran afoul of the gatekeepers when he questioned the traditional view of hell. He was summarily “farewelled.” (which is a thing now)
Why aren’t we asking why the Reformed questioned the “traditional” view of purgatory? Oh, that’s right, because true Christianity started in the 1500s. (See “Protestantism” above)
This objection fails because it is a thinly-veiled attempt to shame Open theists back into the fold, or to “farewell” them out of it.
In his thirteenth objection, Wilson touts his PhD studies of Paul (apparently). He claims that in all of Paul’s theology, God is depicted as energizing all human choices. So, again, Wilson’s objection collapses people (not just Judas this time) into God. We aren’t really agents, we are merely extensions of God. Perhaps we’re only figments of God’s imagination. How “comforting.”
But instead of inventing a new word like “energism,” they way Barclay allegedly did, why not just use the word that Paul actually uses in Romans 8: synergy. Synergy isn’t God making puppets out of us. Synergy is God working together with us.
Oh! I know why Wilson wouldn’t use Paul’s word—because it doesn’t support his objection against Open theism, it demolishes it.
In his final objection, Wilson calls C. S. Lewis as a witness against Open theism. This choice doesn’t seem very well thought-through. C. S. Lewis was an inclusivist (that apparently gets you “farewelled” by people like Wilson). C. S. Lewis believed in purgatory. (Again, “Farewell, C. S.”) And C. S. Lewis is one of the primary reasons I am an Open theist.
It was Lewis who convinced me that free will is essential to the constitution of human beings. And it was Lewis who convinced me that love is risky—something Wilson thinks the doctrine of the Trinity refutes, even though Lewis was Trinitarian. Here’s Lewis in his own words:
“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
— The Four Loves
“God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata—of creatures that worked like machines—would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they’ve got to be free.
Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently, He thought it worth the risk. (…) If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will—that is, for making a real world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings—then we may take it it is worth paying.”
— Mere Christianity
To cite Lewis as an ally of theological determinism, merely because he said God knows “more than us,” was a very poor choice. Lewis was no determinist, even if he did believe in divine timelessness and foreknowledge. At best, Lewis was a Classical Arminian who held Exhaustive Definite Foreknowledge and Libertarian free will in paradoxical tension.
But, more to the point, Wilson appears as unfamiliar of Open theism as the typical Calvinist critic. He doesn’t seem to know that Open theists would certainly affirm with Lewis that God knows “more than us.”