Category Archives: 3 – Openness Theology

From Everlasting to Everlasting, Thou Art God

Like “O God, Why Did You Let Esther Die?” and “God’s Omniscience and Man’s Freedom,” this article is based on a paper that I wrote in the summer of 1984 while working on a M.A. in Humanities with California State University Dominguez Hills. However unlike them, it is substantially different from the original paper. The reason is that I’ve omitted both of the long quotations and some of the numerous footnotes that the paper contained. I’ve referred to the quotations and given or referred to some of the footnotes in square brackets.

In Psalm 90:2, “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God,” Moses [Psalm 90 is traditionally ascribed to Moses] expresses his faith that God is from eternity to eternity. Traditionally theists have followed his belief that not only does God exist and, as creator, has He existed longer than created things, but also that God is eternal.

But what does it mean to say that God is eternal? Stephen Charnock, following the generally accepted view of God’s eternity, answers the question by stating that God is eternal in that He is without beginning, without end, and without succession or change [Stephen Charnock, Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God, “Discourse V: on the Eternity of God, I. How God is eternal or in what respects he is so]. It is on the third of his qualifying phrases, “without succession or change,” a concept originating in Greek philosophy rather than in the Bible [in my paper I supported this claim with a quotation from Ronald H. Nash, The Concept of God (Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), p. 73], that I shall focus my attention on in this article. I shall consider reasons why the view that God is timelessly (outside of time, and thus without succession or change as well as without beginning and without end) eternal is widely supported, arguments that have been set forth against it, and the suitability of the alternate view that God is temporally (within time) eternal [The terms “timelessly eternal” and “temporarily eternal” are from Stephen T. Davis, Logic and the Nature of God (William B. Eerdmans, 1983), p. 8. In this article, the two views will generally be referred to as “the doctrine of divine timelessness” and “the doctrine of divine everlastingness.”]

The best-known exposition of the doctrine of divine timelessness occurs in the The Consolation of Philosophy of the sixth-century Christian philosopher Boethius. He defines “eternity” as “the whole, perfect, and simultaneous possession of endless life” and claims that God sees all things, including things past and future, as if they were taking place in the present [Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, V, 6. In my paper I included the lengthy summary of Boethius’s exposition given by Richard Swinburne in his The Coherence of Theism (Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 216-217.] An analogy given by various writers is of a traveller on a road seeing only the neighbourhood where he is but someone in a high place above the road seeing the whole road at once. Boethius made the claim in arguing that God’s foreknowing the future and people’s having free will are compatible. However I concluded in “God’s Omniscience and Man’s Freedom” that God’s omniscience does not include knowledge of future things that are dependent upon the operation of human will. Thus the doctrine of divine timelessness’s supporting the general Christian tradition that God’s omniscience includes knowledge of future free human acts does not motivate me to accept the view that God is timeless.

In arguing that God is timelessly eternal, Thomas Aquinas claims that “the notion of eternity follows immutability, as the notion of time follows movement” [Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica, 1, X, 2]. However I do not believe that God is totally immutable or changeless, my thinking that to describe Him as immutable is just to say that He remains fixed in His character. [In my paper I quoted from the section on God’s immutability in Richard Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism (Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 211-215.] Thus the doctrine of divine timelessness’s following from or explaining the traditional Christian belief that God is totally immutable does not motivate me to accept the view that God is timeless.

Two more reasons for a Christian’s being tempted by the doctrine of divine timelessness are that it emphasizes the transcendence of God and that it seems analogous to the doctrine of divine spacelessness, which are generally recognized by Christians. Regarding the latter I don’t understand the relationships between God and space and between time and space well enough for it to influence me at this time. And regarding the former I don’t see the need to exalt God’s transcendence in every possible way but just in the ways that the Bible does and that are essential to theism. However I don’t believe that the Bible teaches that God is timeless or feel any theological need to accept divine timelessness. [In my paper I quoted from or referred to the books by Stephen T. Davis and Ronald H. Nash that I named earlier in this article.]

In fact I am repelled by the doctrine of divine timelessness because I think that it has an inner incoherence and because I think that it is incompatible with the Biblical picture of God. The inner incoherence can be seen by considering Boethius’s claim that God is present to all times at once. According to this view God is simultaneously present at my birth, my present, and my death. This would seem to imply that my birth, my present, and my death are simultaneous times–which is false. A defender of timelessness would probably reply that I am failing to distinguish between viewing an event from the divine perspective and from the human perspective and would refer to an analogy such as the one I gave earlier. Although the defender’s claim might be true, I am stuck with my limited mind and, if I want to be rational, must reject what it judges to be incoherent. [In my paper I quoted from the book by Stephen Davis that I named earlier in this article.]

Both Davis and Nash refer to Nelson Pike’s argument in his God and Timelessness [Nelson Pike, God and Timelessness (Shocken Books, 1970). Not having access to that book when I wrote my paper, in it I quoted the summary of Pike’s argument given in Ronald H. Nash, The Concept of God  (Zondervan, 1983), pp. 79-80). Since then I’ve gotten Wipf and Stock Publishers’ 2002 republication of God and Timelessness.] It does not seem to me that a timeless being can be the creator and sustainer of the world or a personal being who acts in history, both of which the Bible pictures God as being.

What is the alternative to a timeless God? A temporal God. But can a temporal God be everything that the Christian God is supposed to be? I believe so. He can still be eternal, in the Biblical sense of being everlasting or without beginning and without end. He can still be omniscient, in the voluntarily limited sense that I argued for in “God’s Omniscience and Man’s Freedom.” He can still be immutable, in the sense of remaining fixed in His essential nature. And He can act in time, as creator and sustainer of the world and as a personal God involved in human history. Thus to Him I can say, as did Moses, “THOU ART GOD!” [in Psalm 90:2, quoted in full at the beginning of this article].

In my next post I’ll begin a series of posts on the advantages claimed for open theism that I identified in the first post at Open Theism, “An Introduction to Open Theism.”

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God’s Omniscience and Man’s Freedom

Like “O God, Why Did You Let Esther Die?”  this article is based on a paper that I wrote in the summer of 1984 while working on a M.A. in Humanities with California State University Dominguez Hills. That paper included numerous footnotes, some of which I’ve given or referred to here in square brackets. Otherwise the article is almost identical to the paper.

Most Christians believe both that God is omniscient and that human beings have a free will. But are God’s omniscience and man’s freedom consistent? I think that they are and in this article shall try to demonstrate that they are.

It is necessary to begin by defining the terms “omniscience” and “freedom.” I shall define “omniscience” as “the quality of possessing all possible knowledge” and “freedom” as “the state of being able to do something or not to do it.” But does “all possible knowledge” include knowledge of the future? Since most Christians would agree with Augustine’s claims that “to confess that God exists, and at the same time to deny that He has foreknowledge of future things, is the most manifest folly” and that “one who is not prescient of all future things is not God” [Augustine, City of God, V, 9], I shall consider first the implications of God’s omniscience including knowledge of all future things. Then I shall consider the consequences of His omniscience not including knowledge of all future things.

If God foreknows all future things, then everything has to happen in the way that it is foreknown. And if everything has to happen as foreknown, then those involved have to participate in the way in which they are foreknown to take part. And if those involved have to participate as foreknown, then they are not free not to take part. In other words, God’s foreknowledge seems logically to negate human freedom. That the Reformers recognized this can be illustrated by the following quotation from Luther: “For if we believe it to be true that God foreknows and predestines all things, that he can neither be mistaken in his foreknowledge nor hindered in his predestination, and that nothing takes place but as he wills it (as reason itself is forced to admit), then on the testimony of reason itself there cannot be any free choice in man or angel or any creature” [Martin Luther, On the Bondage of the Will, Conclusion].

However most Christians not only believe that God foreknows the future but also that human beings have a free will. How do they reconcile the two? They either argue that foreknowledge does not involve determination of future actions but mere knowledge of future free actions, or redefine “free” in such a way that it is compatible with being determined [in my paper I illustrated this in a footnote with a lengthy quotation from Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica, First Part, Q. 83, Art. 1], or claim that how to reconcile the two is a secret of God beyond understanding [in my paper I illustrated this in a footnote with a lengthy quotation from Stephen Charnock, Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God, Discourse VIII: on God’s Knowledge, II. What God Knows]. However, as indicated in the preceding paragraph, I think that foreknowledge of events logically implies that the events are predetermined, and thus I reject the first proposed means of reconciliation of God’s foreknowledge and human freedom as illogical. Redefining “free” in such a way that it is compatible with being determined gives it, in my opinion, something other than a natural meaning, and thus I reject the second means as well. Claiming that how to reconcile the two is a mystery might be theologically sound, but it is philosophically unsound and so I reject it too (I wrote the paper as a philosophy paper, not as a theology paper).

If, against common Christian belief, “omniscience” does not include knowledge of all future things, it would seem to follow that the future is not determined. For if the future were determined but God did not know the future, then He would be lacking some possible knowledge and, according to my initial definition of “omniscience” as “the quality of possessing all possible knowledge,” would not be omniscient. But if the future is not determined, true prophecies regarding the future, which the Bible indicates have been made, could not be made. Thus, if the Bible is true, it would seem that at least part of the future is determined and consequently that “omniscience” includes knowledge of at least part of the future.

Before proceeding, I shall summarize my conclusions thus far. God’s omniscience including knowledge of all future things would imply a determined future and thus would be inconsistent with human freedom. But true prophecies of future events imply that at least part of the future is determined and that God’s omniscience includes knowledge of at least part of the future.

What is my solution? I believe that God’s omniscience includes of the future only those parts that He actually decrees or that are necessitated by or can be predicted without chance of error from the past and the present. I do not believe that it includes knowledge of those things that are dependent upon the operation of human free will.

Thus my final verdict is that GOD IS OMNISCIENT and MAN IS FREE. The basis of God’s omniscience and man’s freedom being consistent is God’s having voluntarily limited the realm of possible knowledge when He created free creatures [in my paper I observed in a footnote that John Lucas had proposed a similar view in his The Freedom of the Will (Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 75]. THANK YOU, LORD, FOR TRUSTING US WITH THE GIFT OF FREEDOM!

My next post will be based on another paper that I wrote in my studies with California State University Dominguez Hills, “From Everlasting to Everlasting, Thou Art God.”

God’s Omniscience

In this post I’ll consider the fifth point in John Sanders’ summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site:

Finally, the omniscient God knows all that can be known given the sort of world he created. The content of divine omniscience has been debated in the Christian tradition; between Thomism and Molinism for example. In the openness debate the focus is on the nature of the future: is it fully knowable, fully unknowable or partially knowable and partially unknowable? We believe that God could have known every event of the future had God decided to create a fully determined universe. However, in our view God decided to create beings with indeterministic freedom which implies that God chose to create a universe in which the future is not entirely knowable, even for God. For many open theists the “future” is not a present reality–it does not exist–and God knows reality as it is.

This view may be called dynamic omniscience (it corresponds to the dynamic theory of time rather than the stasis theory). According to this view God knows the past and present with exhaustive definite knowledge and knows the future as partly definite (closed) and partly indefinite (open). God’s knowledge of the future contains knowledge of that which is determinate or settled as well as knowledge of possibilities (that which is indeterminate). The determined future includes the things that God has unilaterally decided to do and physically determined events (such as an asteroid hitting our moon). Hence, the future is partly open or indefinite and partly closed or definite and God knows it as such. God is not caught off-guard–he has foresight and anticipates what we will do.

Our rejection of divine timelessness and our affirmation of dynamic omniscience are the main controversial elements in our proposal and the view of foreknowledge receives the most attention. However, the watershed issue in the debate is not whether God has exhaustive definite knowledge (EDK) but whether God is ever affected by and responds to what we do. This is the same watershed that divides Calvinism from Arminianism.

For now I’m just going to explain a few of the terms that Sanders uses in the above quotation. In my next two regular posts I’ll share two papers that I wrote as sequels to “O God, Why Did You Let Esther Die?” affirming “dynamic omniscience” and rejecting “divine timelessness”–“God’s Omniscience and Man’s Freedom” and “From Everlasting to Everlasting, Thou Art God.”

“Omniscient” means having complete knowledge of all things. Sanders observes that Christian thinkers disagree on what that knowledge includes and explains that open theists hold that it doesn’t include the parts of the future brought above by our free actions because they haven’t yet been determined and thus aren’t knowable.

“Thomism” is the theological and philosophical system of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). In his Summa Theologica Aquinas argues that God knows future contingent things, including parts of the future brought about by our free will, because He knows them in eternity, which Aquinas believed is outside of time (First Part Question 14 Article 13). Further on Aquinas also argues that everything is under God’s providence even though that providence doesn’t impose necessity on some things, such as things brought about by our free will (Question 22 Article 4); this suggests to me that Aquinas believed that another reason that God knows future contingent things is that they are under His providence. [Summa Theologica is included in Great Books of the Western World (volumes 19-20), which I have.]

“Molinism” is the theory of Luis de Molina (1535-1600) that God not only knows what will happen in the future but also knows what would happen if circumstances were different from what they are. Although Molinists believe that because of His having given us free will God can’t control what we do in any set of circumstances, they hold that God can control certain aspects of the circumstances themselves and thus can affect what we do. Molina called God’s knowledge of what would happen if circumstances were different from what they are “middle knowledge” and the theory is sometimes referred to by that name. [Not having any of Molina’s writings, I derived the foregoing from Bruce A. Ware’s excursus on Molinism in his God’s Lesser Glory (pages 38-40).]

“The dynamic theory of time” is the theory that God is not timeless and relates to the world within the bounds of time (past, present, and future). See “divine timelessness” below.

“The stasis theory [of time]” is the theory that God is timeless, experiencing time as an eternal present. See “divine timelessness” below.

“Divine timelessness” refers to God’s being outside of time, time’s existing for Him as one eternal present. Those rejecting divine timelessness interpret God’s being “eternal” as His being everlasting, having no beginning nor end, and view Him as having a past, present, and future.

Please let me know in an e-mail or in a comment on this post of any other terms used by Sanders in the quotation that you think should be explained, and I’ll try to explain them.

My next post will be a tribute to Valentine’s Day. In the two posts after it I’ll share the two papers referred to above.

O God, Why Did You Let Esther Die?

This article is based on a paper that I wrote in the summer of 1984 while working on a M.A. in Humanities with California State University Dominguez Hills. That paper paved the way for other papers in which I expressed open theistic views, two of which (“God’s Omniscience and Man’s Freedom” and “From Everlasting to Everlasting”) will also appear here. Shorter and longer versions of the paper appeared as articles in the February 1998 issue of “Good Tidings” (the official publication of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Newfoundland and Labrador) and a few years later in Bob’s Corner at Suite101.com. I’ve consulted them in preparing the paper for sharing here.

“O God, why did you let Esther die? Was it because you couldn’t help her or was it because you wouldn’t help her? Whichever–I don’t think much of you! Of what value is a God who either can’t or won’t help His children when they need Him?” Such were the questions that my anguished heart poured out to God after my first wife’s death from complications following successful open-heart surgery in 1971.

Both during my wife’s months in various hospitals and after her death, well-meaning Christian friends offered many words of consolation to me. Although at least one suggested that God’s not healing her indicated some shortcoming by her or me, either of insufficient faith or of actual sin, most were encouraging. Some focused on the thought that God knows and brings about what is best for His children and others, after her death, talked about how much happier she must be now that she was in heaven and free of her suffering.

However, none of these suggestions proved satisfying to me. The first I felt had long ago been shown by the book of Job to be inadequate to explain the sufferings of the righteous, which Esther certainly was both in faith and in practice. The other two I did not think fit the circumstances. How was it better for a young woman who loved life to be dead, even if it meant being in heaven, than to be alive and enjoying the life that God had given her here? How was it better for her little girl and her husband to be left motherless and wifeless than to enjoy the love and care of a good mother and wife? I could not (and, 41 years later, still cannot) accept the view that Esther died because of her or my shortcomings or the view that she died because God saw that her death was best for her or for her family.

With no answers coming from God or from friends to ease my grief, I found myself praying, “O God, if You are really there. . . .” But the faith in Jesus Christ that had been an integral part of me since my childhood since childhood kept me from denying him. Yet I continued to question His letting Esther die. To try to find an answer, I read whatever I could regarding God’s allowing evil in the world that He had made.

One of the ideas that I encountered in my reading was that maybe God was limited in power or in will to prevent evil. For it is possible that God is limited in power to prevent evil. Perhaps He is but one in a group of tribal gods, each supporting his particular people in their relationships with others and thus bringing good to his people and evil to their enemies. Or, perhaps He is one of two opposing forces, He being good and the other evil, who have involved us in their ongoing struggle with each other. Or, perhaps He, as the only or chief god, is responsible for our being created but is unable to control His creation. All of these view–polytheism, dualism, and finitism, respectively–have been held by religious groups or thinkers.

And it is possible that God is limited in will to prevent evil. Perhaps He made the world so that He could play with His creation as I used to play with my toy soldiers when I was a boy, finding pleasure in their sufferings as well as in their happy experiences. Or, perhaps, indifferent to what would happen to His creatures, He is busy at something else or taking a rest, as Elijah mockingly suggested to the prophets of Baal that their god might be doing (I Kings 18:27). Although few have seriously believed God to be a cosmic sadist, the viewpoint that He is uninvolved in the operation of the universe that He created was argued for by deists.

However, my belief in God’s existence was based on my faith in Jesus Christ and he clearly believed in a God unlimited in power and in goodness. For example, he told his disciples, “With God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27), and the rich young ruler, “There is none good but one, that is, God” (Mark 10:18). This ruled out my accepting that God is limited in power or in will to prevent evil. It also brought me face to face with what scholars term the “problem of evil”: if God is all-powerful, He can prevent evil; if God is wholly good, He wants to prevent evil; thus if God is all-powerful and wholly good, evil shouldn’t exist; however it does exist.

In my search for a solution to my problem, I discovered that several theodicies, attempts to justify God’s allowing the existence of evil, have been proposed by Christian thinkers. Amongst them are the aesthetic, the soul-building, and the free will defences. According to the first view, evil is permitted by God in order that good may stand out as beautiful in contrast to it. According to the second view, evil is permitted by God so that humans will develop morally in confrontation with it. And, according to the third view, evil is due to the bad use by humans of the freedom given to them by God. Because the free will defence seemed to me to be the most consistent with traditional Christian theology, I narrowed my search for a solution to the problem of evil to a consideration of it.

The free will defence is rooted in the Genesis account of the creation and fall of man. According to that account, God made the first man and the first woman “in his own image” (1:27). However, unlike Him, they did not “know good and evil” (3:6,22). God provided them opportunity for such by commanding them not to eat of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” at the same time warning them that they would “surely die” if they did eat of it (2:17). Tempted by the serpent (Satan, according to Revelation 20:2), Adam and Eve disobeyed, bringing moral and physical evil into man’s world (chapter 3). Thus, evil exists in the world, according to the Genesis account of the creation and fall of man, because God gave man a choice between obeying or disobeying Him and man chose to disobey Him.

Why would God give man a such a choice, knowing that man could choose to disobey Him, thus bringing evil into the perfect world that He had created? Certainly, being all-powerful, He not only could have prevented introduction of evil into the human world but also could banish it from our world or at least make a new home for us where it could not enter (Revelation 21-22). And, surely, being wholly good, He did not and does not want evil. The answer to this question, according to the proponents of the free will defence, is that God wanted to create the best possible world that He could and a world containing free, moral creatures is better, all else being equal, than a world not containing free moral creatures. Accordingly, God created a world in which there originally existed no evil and He created human beings capable of free moral choice.

Knowing that mankind, rather than God, is responsible for humanity’s miserable condition, did not completely removed my complaint against God. As the Bible and history reveal, God has intervened and continues to intervene for His children in answer to their prayers to Him. Why didn’t He answer our prayers for Esther? I still can’t answer that question. However I no longer bewail Esther’s death or even seek a reason for God’s allowing it.

Why not? Because meditation upon the Son of God’s voluntarily laying aside His divine life in Heaven to enter our world as a human and to suffer the most agonizing of deaths on the cross of Calvary–so that mankind might be reconciled with His Father and have an inner peace now and a place in Heaven in the future–has impressed upon me how much God cares about us. Moreover, God gave my daughter and me a good life together and when it was time for her to leave home gave me a new wife and blessed her and me with two children. Surely if He would do all this for me, I should be willing to accept Esther’s death as part of her and my life in this world and to trust Him “that all things work together for good to them that love God” (Romans 8:28).

In my next post I’ll consider the fifth (and final) point in John Sanders’ summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site.

Libertarian Freedom

In this post I’ll consider the fourth point in John Sanders’ summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site:

Fourth, God has granted us the type of freedom (libertarian) necessary for a truly personal relationship of love to develop. Again, this was God’s decision, not ours. Despite the fact that we have abused our freedom by turning away from the divine love, God remains faithful to his intentions for creation and this faithful love was manifested most fully in the life and work of Jesus.

John M. Frame identifies the concept of libertarian freedom as the criterion by which open theists test other doctrines and devotes an entire chapter of No Other God to it–chapter 8, “Do We Have Genuine Freedom?”. Whether or not it is the criterion by which open theists test other doctrines, libertarian freedom certainly is an essential element in open theism. In this post I’ll define it and the alternative view of freedom proposed by some classical theists, compatibilism; identify some of the criticisms made of it; and present an apology for it.

Libertarian Freedom

Libertarians hold that a person is free with respect to a particular action only if he or she can perform the action or refrain from performing it. They maintain that if a person’s decision to do or not do the action is caused by anyone or anything else, including God, then the decision is not properly his or hers and he or she cannot be held responsible for the action. Thus they claim that, since according to the Bible God holds people responsible for their actions, people must have libertarian freedom.

Compatabilist Freedom

Compatabilists hold that a decision is free with respect to a particular action as long as it is free from external constraint. They maintain that it is free even if God so influences the person’s beliefs and desires that he or she has to make the decision that God wants him or her to make. Thus they claim that God can be in complete control of a situation by influencing the participants’ beliefs and desires and yet hold those participants responsible for what happens.

Some Criticisms of Libertarianism

A common criticism made of libertarian freedom is that the Bible doesn’t explicitly teach its existence. However neither does the Bible explicitly teach the existence of compatabilist freedom. Thus the question is which view is more consistent with the overall teaching of the Bible.

Another common criticism made of libertarian freedom is that it undermines the sovereignty of God by allowing humans to do or not do what God wills. However open theists argue that God’s allowing libertarian freedom and yet ultimately accomplishing His purposes enhances rather than undermines His sovereignty.

A criticism of libertarian freedom made by Calvinists is that it is inconsistent with their belief that God foreordains all that happens. However the Bible seems to support both the belief that God foreordains all that happens and the belief that man has free will. Most of the church fathers held a position similar to that of the libertarians until Augustine challenged it, since which there has been a contest between his and their views. In Protestantism the two views are generally associated with Calvin, his following Augustine, and Arminius, his asserting libertarian freedom.

Arminians resolve the apparent inconsistency between God’s foreordaining all that happens and man’s having a free will by asserting that God foreknows everything, including the free actions of humans, and foreordains what He sees. Calvinists object that God’s foreseeing everything means that the future is settled and thus humans can’t have libertarian freedom. They resolve the apparent inconsistency by arguing for humans having compatabilist rather than libertarian freedom.

Open theists resolve the apparent inconsistency by claiming that humans’ having libertarian freedom implies that the future is at least partly open and by affirming at the same time that God retains control and will accomplish His purposes. Naturally both Calvinists and Arminians reject this way of resolving the apparent inconsistency. I’ll discuss further these three solutions to the problem referred to here shortly in a post called “Divine Omniscience.”

An Apology for Libertarianism

Personally, I came to open theistic views while searching for an answer to the question of why God caused or allowed my first wife to die at only 26 leaving behind a husband and four-year-old daughter. John Sanders’ introduction to The God Who Risks suggests that he came to open theistic views while doing a similar search, his being prompted by the tragic death of his brother. Our experiences illustrate one of the values of libertarianism, its role in dealing with the problem of evil.

Another value of libertarianism is that it reflects best our instinctive feelings that we freely choose our actions and thus are responsible for their results and yet that God is in ultimate control.

Another value of libertarianism is the attractiveness of the concept that God loves us so much that He gives us libertarian freedom even though He knows that some will use it to reject Him and His will.

In my next post I’ll share a paper that I wrote in 1984 describing my search for an answer to the question of why God allowed my first wife to die, “O God, Why Did You Let Esther Die?”.

General Rather Than Meticulous Providence

In this post I’ll consider the third point in John Sanders’ summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site:

Third, the only wise God has chosen to exercise general rather than meticulous providence, allowing space for us to operate and for God to be creative and resourceful in working with us. It was solely God’s decision not to control every detail that happens in our lives. Moreover, God has flexible strategies. Though the divine nature does not change, God reacts in contingencies, even adjusting his plans, if necessary, to take into account the decisions of his free creatures. God is endlessly resourceful and wise in working towards the fulfillment of his ultimate goals. Sometimes God alone decides how to accomplish these goals. Usually, however, God elicits human cooperation such that it is both God and humanity who decide what the future shall be. God’s plan is not a detailed script or blueprint, but a broad attention that allows for a variety of options regarding precisely how these goals may be reached. What God and people do in history matters. If the Hebrew midwives had feared Pharoah rather than God and killed the baby boys, God would have responded accordingly and a different story would have emerged. What people do and whether they come to trust God makes a difference concerning what God does–God does not fake the story of human history.

What I’ll do in the rest of this post is to define and comment briefly on meticulous and general providence, guided by “Specific Versus General Sovereignty” in John Sanders’ The God Who Risks. For those readers of this post with access to that book, such as my family, I’d recommend your reading the complete section (pages 211-217).

Meticulous Providence

According to meticulous providence, God ordains everything that happens. Even acts that we view as evil happen because God wants them to happen and serve a good purpose in God’s plan. Thus there are no such things as accidents or tragedies.

Sanders quotes the following passage by Alexander Pope to illustrate this:
All Nature is but Art, unknown to thee;
All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;
All Discord, Harmony not understood;
All partial Evil, universal Good:
And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason’s spite,
One truth is clear, WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT.
(Alexander Pope, The Nature of Man, I, 289-294)

Such divine control seems to rule out human responsibility. However proponents of meticulous providence claim that it doesn’t, arguing that meticulous providence and human responsibility are only apparently contradictory, redefining freedom so that it is compatible with being ordained, or asserting that God ordains on the basis of His supposed foreknowledge of all is going to happen including the free acts of humans. Sanders doesn’t discuss their arguments in “Specific Versus General Sovereignty” but refers to his consideration of them at other places in The God Who Risks–pages 34-37 (“The Appeal to Antinomies”), 220-224 (“Human Freedom”), and 194-206 (“Excursus on Omniscience”). He concludes that their arguments are unsuccessful, and I agree with him.

Sanders also observes that meticulous providence rules out certain experiences that the Bible attributes to God, such as His being sorry that He had made man (Genesis 6:6).

General Providence

According to general providence, God sets up general structures and within them allows things to happen, both good and bad, not specifically intended by Him.

God may act to bring about a specific event, but even when He wants humans to do some particular thing He persuades rather than forces them to do it. For example, He chose Moses to free the Israelites from Egypt but persuaded rather than forced him to do it (Exodus 3:1-4:20). Sanders suggests that if Moses had continued to make objections God would have had to find some other way of achieving his goal.

Sanders observes that although the meticulous and general views of providence are clearly different, many Christians switch back and forth between them, depending on the situation. He gives the example of Susan. Many would thank God for her having a good job, but would condemn the rapist/murderer if she were raped and murdered. Their thanking God would imply that God has complete control over what happens (meticulous providence), but their condemning the rapist/murderer would imply that things happen not intended by God (general providence). This is inconsistent.

God’s allowing things to happen not specifically intended by Him may suggest that He is not in control. However although God does not control everything, He is in control in the sense that He initiated the divine project, set the rules under which it operates, and is guiding it towards fruition.

Conclusion

As observed in the third point in the summary of openness theology quoted at the beginning of this post, open theism holds that “the only wise God has chosen to exercise general rather than meticulous providence, allowing space for us to operate and for God to be creative and resourceful in working with us…. God’s plan is not a detailed script or blueprint, but a broad attention that allows for a variety of options regarding precisely how these goals may be reached. What God and people do in history matters.”

In my next post I’ll consider the fourth point in John Sanders’ summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site.

God’s Give-and-Take Relationship with Us

In this post I’ll consider the second point in John Sanders’ summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site:

Second, God has, in sovereign freedom, decided to make some of his actions contingent upon our requests and actions. God elicits our free collaboration in his plans. Hence, God can be influenced by what we do and God truly responds to what we do. God genuinely interacts and enters into dynamic give-and-take relationships with us. That God changes in some respects implies that God is temporal, working with us in time. God, at least since creation, experiences duration. God is everlasting through time rather than timelessly eternal.

book 2In preparation for commenting on the above, I reread several times chapters 3 and 4 of Sanders’ The God Who Risks, which examine the Old and New Testament material supporting the “risk” view of providence (God’s care). From each chapter I’ve selected an event considered by Sanders that illustrates the above point, from chapter 3 the establishment, breaking, and renewal of the Covenant (pages 61-66) and from chapter 4 the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Church (pages 117-124). Although I won’t consider in this post whether God’s being eternal means that He is everlasting or timeless, after I finish examining the five points in the summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site I’ll share three papers that I wrote in 1984 on freewill theism (another name for open theism), one of which concerns the nature of God’s eternity.

The Establishment, Breaking, and Renewal of the Covenant

While the Israelites were camped at Mount Sinai, God established a covenant or agreement with them. “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all people, for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:4-6, ESV) God freely established the covenant, but it involved obligations for both the Israelites and Him–they were to obey His word and He would bless them. Thus although the establishment of the covenant was unconditional, its continuance was contingent upon the Israelites’ obeying God’s word.

The breaking and renewal of the Covenant in Exodus 32-34 illustrates this. When God informed Moses of the Israelites’ worshipping the golden calf, He told him that He was going to destroy them and start over again with him. However as a result of Moses’ intercession for the Israelites, God changed His mind and didn’t do what He had said that He would do. After Moses visited the idolatrous scene, he returned to God and asked Him to forgive the Israelites. This time God refused his request and said that an angel, rather than God, would accompany the Israelites. However as a result of the Israelites’ taking off their ornaments as God instructed them to and of Moses’ continued intercession for them, God again changed His mind and said that His “presence” would go with them. He then renewed His covenant with the Israelites.

The Inclusion of the Gentiles in the Church

Sanders comments on what Acts 10-15 and Romans 9-11 show about God’s attempt to include the Gentiles within the Church without first having to convert to Judaism. I’ll limit my consideration to Acts 10-15.

In Acts 10 God showed Peter that Gentiles should be included in the Church as Gentiles by having an angel tell Cornelius, a Roman centurion, to send for Peter; by granting Peter a vision of ceremonially unclean food and commanding him three times to eat it; and by giving the gift of the Holy Spirit to those listening to Peter’s message about Jesus in the house of Cornelius. In Acts 11 Peter explained the situation to Jewish Christians who took issue with him and they concluded that God had accepted the Gentiles into the Church.

Acts 13-14 describes Paul’s first missionary journey, in which some Jews and many Gentiles came to faith in Christ. Acts 15 narrates how certain Jewish Christians told the Gentile Christians that they couldn’t be genuine Christians unless they practiced the law of Moses and how Paul and Barnabas disagreed with them and it was decided to take the matter to the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. It also describes that meeting, in which Peter recounted what had happened in the house of Cornelius, Paul and Barnabas told of signs and wonders among the Gentiles, James suggested certain minimum requirements that Gentiles should observe, and those in the meeting agreed to his suggestion.

Sanders observes that to accomplish His plan to develop both Jews and Gentiles into a body having faith in Jesus God was dependent on the people involved, especially Peter and Paul, to correctly interpret His actions in the events described in Acts 10-15; that although His plan met initial success, God did experience some setbacks, such as the incident at Antioch described in Galatians 2:11-21; and that despite His resourcefulness, God did not achieve everything that He wanted to accomplish regarding the Jews, most of them rejecting Jesus as their Messiah.

Conclusion

The two events considered above illustrate that, as Sanders puts it in the second point of his summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site: “God has, in sovereign freedom, decided to make some of his actions contingent upon our requests and actions. God elicits our free collaboration in his plans. Hence, God can be influenced by what we do and God truly responds to what we do. God genuinely interacts and enters into dynamic give-and-take relationships with us.”

In my next post I’ll consider the third point in John Sanders’ summary of openness theology at Open Theism Information Site.