The Future of Openness? A Review of Creation Made Free: Open Theology Engaging Science

What does the future hold for Open theology? Is the trajectory of its formulation and communication evident now? Can we discern warnings of impending ruin, or can we divine signs of a bright and promising tomorrow?

In Creation Made Free: Open Theology Engaging Science (hereafter CMF), I find multiple reasons to be hopeful about the future of Openness. It is clear Open theism is the best equipped theological framework for meaningful dialog with the sciences. This places Openness in a highly favorable position as greater numbers of Christians in the US (and elsewhere) grow increasingly dissatisfied with the false dichotomy they have been taught regarding science and religion. Additionally, the Open view’s theodicy continues to provide the most relief to the theoretical problem of evil amongst evangelical understandings of divine providence. For these reasons alone I am confident Open theism will continue to enjoy growth in support and scholarship.

Moreover, I was greatly encouraged by the inclusion of such research in this volume as Michael Lodahl’s chapter on “The (Brief) Openness Debate in Islamic Theology” and Alan Rhoda’s chapter on “Beyond the Chess Master Analogy: Game Theory and Divine Providence.” To me, these contributions represent a broadening of the Openness discussion to include some very interesting corollaries. In the future, I can see the potential for even further-reaching connections of Open theology to science and history.

There are at least two additional chapters deserving of special mention. I found Alan G. Padgett’s chapter beautifully reasoned and written. Padgett critiques Arthur Peacocke’s ontology with a poetic cadence reminiscent of C. S. Lewis. For example, he writes, “Paradox and dialectic are useful tools in theology, but outright contradiction is anathema.” (p.184) Doesn’t that just read like a bar song sung by theologians in an British pub? Likewise, I was impressed by the sheer volume of Scriptural support to which Greg Boyd appeals in his chapter. I literally lost count of Boyd’s Scripture citations after 50, and was only mid-way through the piece.

Nevertheless, CMF also gives me cause for pause as I detect a major blind spot. As a theology that has developed (if only in its contemporary form) largely from evangelical scholarship, it is far too unrepresentative of evangelicalism’s multi-ethnicity. Not one of the thirteen contributors to this work is a person of color. Why is it that theological determinism can attract so many young, zealous, nonwhite defenders like Randall Tan, who debated Karen Strand Winslow at the Open Theology and Science seminar in ’07, but among Open theologians not a minority can be found? For Open theism to develop into a sustainable evangelical theology, it must begin now to prepare for the next evangelicalism by exploring its complementarity with non-Western cultures and post-colonial thought.

I am also concerned that CMF may have committed a critical, tactical error by interspersing Process theism amidst its Open theism. In Anna Case-Winter’s contributed chapter entitled, “Rethinking Divine Presence and Activity in World Process,” she unabashedly espouses “process-panentheism” in her rejection of what she calls the “unhelpful” and “misleading” “bifurcation that separates God (as Creator) from all else (as creation)…” (p.78) This is certainly not representative of the “core themes affirmed by the majority, if not all, Open theists” which Dr. Oord lists in the book’s introduction. Out of the eleven themes listed, six include clear allusions to a Creator-creation distinction. In particular, the seventh theme, “God created all nondivine things,” appears to make starkest the contrast between commonly-held Open theist commitments and Dr. Case-Winter’s view. (p. 3)

Furthermore, I’m afraid Dr. Oord himself drifts away from consensus Open view teachings and into something more akin to Process within his own chapter: “An Open Theology Doctrine of Creation.” While I was drawn to the idea of an “essential kenosis” theory because of its potential to support the biblical claim: “God is love,” I found Oord’s conclusions, which include “God’s inability to prevent genuine evil,” do not follow from the biblical data.

What Dr. Oord defines as “genuine evil” isn’t entirely clear, but Scripture certainly teaches that God intervenes in human affairs to prevent Satan and sinful human beings from having cart blanche in the world at all times. In Scripture God judges, God rescues, God heals, God speaks. If these are not interventions, what will we say of Scripture? Open theists consistently defend this point in contrast to Process theists. For example, Clark Pinnock clearly states in his chapter of The Openness of God, “…God has the power to intervene in the world, interrupting (if need be) the normal causal sequences.” (p. 109) Pinnock also recognizes and resists the gravity of Process theism saying, “God neither surrenders power in order to love nor denies love in the need to rule, but combines love and power perfectly.” (p. 114) Also adding a warning to Open theists that I think it wise for us to heed: “Let us seek a way to revise classical theism in a dynamic direction without falling into process theology.” (p. 107)

Essential kenosis could be a promising theory if developed further. The kenosis Scripture reveals places the stress of its praiseworthiness on Christ’s willingness to voluntarily humiliate himself and lay down his life for the reconciliation of all things. I see no reason why this kenosis should be thought to only characterize the Son but not the triune God. However, essential kenosis appears to eradicate the divine freedom that makes such an act demonstratively loving. If God does not humble himself, but is instead essentially humbled, does this enhance God’s praise? Moreover, how could it be that the divine Son possesses kenotic freedom while retaining full divinity if the divine nature is essentially self-emptying?

CMF confronts Openness scholarship with at least three challenging questions regarding its future:

  1. Is Open theism a ‘big tent’ with room for Process theism?
  2. Is Open theism strictly an evangelical theology?
  3. Does an affirmative position on question 2 preclude an affirmative response toward question 1?

Personally, I’m not yet convinced that Openness is a purely evangelical theology despite its contemporary renaissance as such. While most Openness scholars certainly give Scripture special credence, many of the theses in this very work are not primarily rooted in Scripture, yet they do not undermine the core themes of Open theism. Therefore, I could envision an Open theology flexible-enough to claim Christian scholars of diverse theological traditions.

However, I am thoroughly convinced Openness must remain distinct from Process theism if it desires to maintain fidelity to the biblical witness. Open theists must continue to resist the gravitational pull of Process away from the Creator-creation distinction and toward an impersonal God. There needn’t be a halt to Openness-Process dialog (such as Searching for an Adequate God), but I would argue Open theists must guard against blurring the line that distinguishes Process from Openness.

I highly recommend CMF to any and all Christian thinkers who are dissatisfied with the modern, manufactured conflict between science and religion, and are desirous of a conversant theological framework better suited for the growing dialog between Christianity and science.