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The "Openness of God" From a Pentecostal Perspective

By Edgar R. Lee

Pentecostals should examine openness claims in terms of sound biblical exegesis and theological explication.

The hottest topic on the evangelical-theological circuit these last few years has been the openness of God, also called open theism, presentism, and freewill theism. The doctrine of God’s omniscience has been revised by openness theologians to a form presumably more in keeping with modern sensibilities. Their project has triggered a spirited debate as to whether the revision is truly biblical and compatible with historic evangelical theology. This article takes a look at that debate from a Pentecostal perspective.

The Debate

Early in the 1990s, several evangelical Arminians began to publicly question the orthodox consensus that God foreknows all future events, including all decisions that people can or will make. They suggested that much of the future is open to be decided only as free creatures make decisions as yet unknown to God. Among the most prominent of these theologians are: Clark Pinnock, one of the editors of The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (1994); John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (1998); and Greg Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (2000). John Sanders was also the openness partner in a two-part dialogue with Christopher A. Hall published by Christianity Today.1

Scholars from across the evangelical spectrum have joined in the debate. The Evangelical Theological Society is a major forum for evangelicals and its members have been major participants in this debate. The openness issue came to a head in the last annual meeting in March 2002. At that time, ETS members voted decisively for a resolution that included the following affirmation: "We believe the Bible clearly teaches that God has complete, accurate, and infallible knowledge of all events past, present, and future including all future decisions and actions of free moral agents."2 This statement represents a decisive rejection of openness views.

The Southern Baptist Convention and the Baptist General Conference have responded similarly to openness theology. The SBC adopted a resolution in June 1999, stating that "the omniscience of God extends to all creation and throughout all time, to all things actual and potential, even to the thoughts and actions of His conscious creatures, past, present, and future."3 The BGC adopted a resolution in June 2000, declaring "that God’s knowledge of all past, present, and future events is exhaustive . . . we also believe that the "openness" view of God’s foreknowledge is contrary to our fellowship’s historic understanding of God’s omniscience."4

Recognizing that different denominations have different theological agendas not always compatible with the Pentecostal tradition, Pentecostals should examine openness claims in terms of sound biblical exegesis and theological explication.

The Openness View

Sanders has described the openness position with four points that may be briefly summarized as follows:

1.Our all-powerful Triune God has created human beings with freedom, and their abuse of freedom notwithstanding, He remains committed to their freedom.

2.God decided to make some of His actions contingent on what humans do.

3.God’s providence is sufficiently general that He does not control every detail of human life and may even change His plans in response to what men and women do.

4.While God knows the past and the present exhaustively, His knowledge of the future is partly indefinite, or open (hence openness), and He does not know all that free persons will do in the future.5

An emphasis on dynamic human freedom is not new, being characteristic of both Calvinist and Arminian theologians (with differing definitions and emphases). However, to suggest that God’s providence is only general in nature, or that God is reduced to changing His plans when His creatures act, or that there are events in the future that God does not know is a major departure from the classical theology of both Calvinism and Arminianism. God’s omniscience (God’s perfect knowledge) and providence (God’s perfect oversight of His creation) have been redefined by openness theologians, and this redefinition requires close scrutiny.

The Proponents’ Case For Openness Theology

In making their case, openness theologians lodge several complaints against historic orthodoxy. One is the claim that orthodoxy has been influenced by Greek philosophy in ways that dim the biblical message. In the words of John Sanders, "The god of Greek thought is anonymous, self-sufficient, alone (unrelated), invulnerable, self-thinking thought, changeless, and egocentric."6 Interacting with these influences, early Christians theologians came to describe the God of the Bible—who warmly communicates with humans and reveals himself preeminently in the person of Jesus—with Greek philosophical language. Some terms that openness theologians single out are impassibility, implying a lack of emotion; immutability, implying an inability to change and respond to human situations; timelessness, implying immunity to subsequent changes in people over time; and His simplicity, implying inability of the Triune person to relate as Father, Son, and Spirit. In openness thought, these nonbiblical categories hinder our understanding and experience of the personal and relational God of the Bible. The openness theologians, then, are calling for reconsideration of classic Christian doctrines expressed in or affected by those terms.

Then, on these assumptions, the openness project gathers a number of passages from the Bible that show God relating to people in ways that seem to contradict classical theological categories. At first, these intriguing passages seem to show not only that God has emotions (challenging impassibility and simplicity) which is contrary to Greek thought, but that God also observes what people do and learns from them things He did not previously know (challenging timelessness and traditional omniscience). Their passages also appear to demonstrate that God changes His mind and His plans to respond to what people do (challenging immutability). Usually cited in openness writings are the following texts and emphases: 7

•Genesis 6:6: "The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain."*

•Numbers 14:11: "The Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me?’ "

•1 Samuel 15:11: "I am grieved that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me."

•Isaiah 5:4: "What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?"

•Isaiah 38:1,5: "This is what the Lord says [to Hezekiah]: ‘. . . you are going to die; you will not recover.’ Go and tell Hezekiah, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of your father David, says: "I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life." ’ "

•Jeremiah 3:7: "I thought that after she had done all this she would return to me but she did not."

•Jeremiah 19:5: "They have built the high places of Baal . . . something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind."

•Jonah 3:10: "When God saw what they [the Ninevites] did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened."

•Matthew 26:39: "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will."

•2 Peter 3:12: "as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming."

If all the details of these texts were taken literally—without consideration of the larger biblical context—they certainly would suggest that God does not know what human beings will do until they do it. Further, they would suggest that God not only responds personally and dynamically to people but also regularly changes His plans when they do not act as He hopes.

Moreover, on the basis of these and similar texts—and guided by a particular modern philosophy of time—openness theologians draw out the understanding that God does not, and indeed, cannot know every detail of the future. In their thinking, the future has not happened and simply is not there to know. Free agents such as men and angels have not yet made tomorrow’s decisions nor acted on them. Therefore, those decisions and actions do not yet exist and cannot be known or controlled—even by God. It is further assumed that God cannot know all the contingent, or potential decisions and actions of human beings and angels. Many aspects of the future are thus truly open and yet to be determined.

Openness theologians do maintain that God has vast knowledge of the present and the past as well as of the things He has personally determined to bring about. God may also draw inferences from what He already knows. The Second Coming of Christ and the end of the world are good examples of events He has determined. It is the things free men and angels do that God cannot know in advance. So, openness advocates definitely restrict the traditional scope of omniscience. Omniscience is redefined to assert that God continues to learn and thereby change—at least in His knowledge—plans and providential actions. The task is redefinition; they do not deny or abandon those doctrines in their entirety.

Practical Advantages Seen by Openness Proponents

Openness advocates contend that their modified view of omniscience lends itself to more dynamic Christian living across a wide spectrum of beliefs and practices.8 Probably the most compelling argument relates to prayer. As Boyd puts it, "many Christians have an understanding of divine sovereignty in which the urgency of prayer simply doesn’t make much sense . . . they believe that God’s plans cannot truly be changed; the future is exhaustively settled."9 If God has not somehow, as in Calvinist thought, decreed and thereby settled all aspects of the future, then God, along with His creatures, discovers many things about the future as it unfolds in the normal course of events. God can then respond spontaneously, lovingly, and decisively to the believer’s prayers without being bound to a decree from eternity past. God can change His mind. God can go from plan "A" to plan "B." God can immediately respond to the pain and suffering of His creation as it is happening. This kind of divine-human encounter appears to be made to order for the "effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man" (James 5:16, KJV) who desperately wants to move the hand of God. Viewed from this perspective, the arguments of the openness theologians seem particularly compelling.

Classic Teaching on Omniscience

It is important, though, to set openness ideas into the context of historic evangelical theology as articulated by both Calvinists and Arminians. Certain differences of opinion between Calvinist and Arminian theologians over the nature of God’s omniscience have existed ever since Arminianism arose as a protest against perceived Calvinistic determinism. The Calvinist has usually argued that God knows every detail of the future, including every decision that His creatures will make, simply because He has foreordained the salvation of the elect and the ordering of the universe. The Arminian, too, has usually argued that God knows every detail of the future, including every decision that His creatures will make. Unlike the Calvinist, the Arminian believes that God gives freedom to humans and angels to make their own decisions with the help of prevenient grace but without the compulsion of irresistible grace. Nonetheless, God fully knows in advance what those decisions will be, weaves them into His eternal plan from eternity past, and graciously guides His creatures and the universe they inhabit to a desired and certain consummation.

So, while Calvinists and Arminians interpret foreknowledge, predestination, and providence differently, the two classic traditions have historically agreed on the central issue at stake in the openness debates—God knows every detail of the future including all that free creatures can think and do, i.e. all contingencies, and does not have to change His plans with every human decision.

Arminian Theologians

Even though the advocates of the openness theology identify with Arminianism, they have deviated from classic Arminian teachings. James Arminius himself declared, "God knows all things from eternity, nothing [de novo] recently . . . He understands all things through His essence."10 A long line of theological heirs has maintained that position. Samuel Wakefield commented, "Omniscience is boundless knowledge; and when it is ascribed to God the meaning is, not merely that He has power to know everything, but that He actually knows all things, past, present, and future."11 John Miley similarly noted, "Omniscience . . . must be prescient of all futuritions, whatever their nature or causality. Future free volitions must be included with events which shall arise from necessary causes."12

Contemporary Wesleyan theologian, Thomas Oden, writes, "God’s knowing is . . . (a) eternally actual, not merely possible; (b) eternally perfect, as distinguished from a knowledge that begins, increases, decreases, or ends; (c) complete instead of partial; and (d) both direct and immediate, instead of indirectly reflected or mediated."13

Assemblies of God theologians usually think in the same vein. Thus William Menzies and Stanley Horton assert, "God is omniscient, having infinite, universal, complete knowledge and insight. . . . All events, past, present, and future, are available to Him as present knowledge."14

Calvinistic Theologians

John Calvin utilized the biblical term foreknowledge, which he separated from predestination, to explain God’s knowledge of the future. "When we attribute foreknowledge to God, we mean that all things always were, and perpetually remain, under His eyes so that to His knowledge there is nothing future or past, but all things are present."15 Foreknowledge to Calvin is comprehensive embracing all of creation and all of time.

Unlike Calvin, more recent Calvinistic theologians have tended to equate foreknowledge and predestination. However, they consistently understand God’s knowledge to be comprehensive in scope. So with the Presbyterian Charles Hodge, "Among the objects of the divine foreknowledge are the free acts of men. The Scriptures abundantly teach that such acts are foreknown."16 From the Christian Reformed tradition, Louis Berkhof maintains, "He knows all things as they actually come to pass—past, present, and future—and knows them in their real relations." Berkhof adds, "It is perfectly evident that Scripture teaches the divine foreknowledge of contingent events."17 Reformed theologian Donald Bloesch states his own belief clearly, "God’s omnipotence includes His omniscience, by which He knows all things—even before they happen."18

What this brief survey of representative evangelical theologians of both Arminian and Calvinistic persuasion clearly shows is that openness theologians have significantly deviated from both streams of the evangelical theological tradition.

A Biblical Perspective Concerning Openness Theology

Having looked at the evangelical theological traditions, it is important to return to the Scriptures where this issue must finally be decided. There is another group of texts that uphold the classic tradition and cast a somewhat different light on the earlier group accentuated by openness theologians. Observe the following:

•Psalm 139:4: "Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord."

•Psalm 139:15: "My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth."

•Psalm 147:5: "Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit."

•Proverbs 15:3: "The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good."

•Isaiah 41:23: ". . . tell us what the future holds, so we may know that you are gods." [God’s challenge to pagan gods to do what He can do.]

•Isaiah 46:10: "I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please."

•Ezekiel 11:5: "Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon me, and he told me to say: ‘This is what the Lord says: That is what you are saying, O house of Israel, but I know what is going through your mind.’ "

•Acts 15:18: "that have been known for ages."

•Romans 8:29: "For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers."

•Hebrews 4:13: "Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account."

These texts so definitively teach that God knows what free creatures will think and do in the future as to leave little doubt about the full-orbed biblical understanding of divine omniscience. It will not do to sweep away God’s comprehensive foreknowledge with a few hard-to-interpret texts or a fog of objectionable Greek philosophical terms.

The first group of texts cited that seem to show God dumbfounded before His creatures is most easily understood in the sense of God’s accommodating himself to limited human understanding. These texts employ gripping anthropomorphisms in which God is presented as though He was a human person in face-to-face relationships. In so doing, they also dramatically demonstrate that God wonderfully and personally relates to human beings in real time and space. Whatever God’s knowledge of the future may be, and whatever the mysteries of predestination and providence may be, He is always present in loving relationships with His people, answering their prayers and working out His good purposes in their lives.

It is almost as though openness advocates have not noticed that modern evangelical theologians have long since abandoned the more austere language of early orthodoxy and place far more emphasis on the personhood of God and His ways of warmly relating to His people. They rarely employ some of the old Greek philosophical concepts, such as impassibility, that seem to rob God of personality and responsiveness.

Openness Theology and Process Theology

It is somewhat ironic to read the criticisms openness theologians make of orthodox Christian theology and its Greek philosophical terminology. As they describe God’s gradual accommodation to an unfolding future, one cannot help but think about process theology19 in which God, at least on a certain level, is growing and changing with the supposed evolution of the universe. While it is commonly agreed that openness theologians are not process theologians, they nonetheless interact extensively with, and appear to share certain assumptions with process theology. A major assumption is their view of time that assumes God cannot know anything that does not yet exist.20 While inveighing against the supposed dilution of early orthodox theology by Greek concepts, they themselves may very well have succumbed to certain nonbiblical influences from modern philosophy and theology. Donald Bloesch has pointed out that process theology "by positing a God who really does experience temporality . . . has done so at the price of letting go of the biblical truth that God is in full control of history."21 Openness theology has not now reached that point but can it avoid continuing on the journey?

Calvinism vs. Arminianism

Some of the unfortunate fallout of the openness of God discussions may be a growing rift in the American evangelical movement. As a generation of young Arminian scholars has come to maturity and other non-Calvinistic evangelicals, like the Pentecostals, have become numerous and influential, there has been a sharper polemic from some Calvinistic theologians that seems to have been exacerbated by the openness dialogue. David Wells recently wrote that openness theism is a combination of Arminianism and a view of God impacted by process theology.22 His colleague, John Jefferson Davis, also states that openness theology "takes to the limit tendencies expressed in the Arminian and process traditions."23 From the Arminian side, one might just as easily point out that what Calvinists perceive as openness exaggeration of Arminian tendencies is a reaction to tendencies toward determinism and fatalism in hegemonic Calvinism. It is no more appropriate to yoke openness theology to Arminianism than to yoke fatalistic determinism to Calvinism. An irenic and honest exploration of both streams of evangelical theology with a view to scriptural fidelity is essential.24

CONCLUSION

This brief study has demonstrated that openness theology is not a legitimate or necessary extension of historic Arminianism with which the Pentecostal tradition has many affinities. Neither is it reflective of the Calvinistic tradition nor a necessary response to that tradition. Rather, openness theology appears to be another tangent in the ongoing quest to reconcile divine providence and human freedom, with a little stimulation from process theology.

The beliefs of openness advocates are probably not so deviant as to require their exclusion from Christian fellowship. They seem genuinely concerned to preach the God of the Bible and make vibrant Christian disciples. Nonetheless, it does seem clear that openness theologians lack adequate scriptural grounding and are outside the theological mainstream with regard to God’s omniscience and providence. Biblically, the future appears to be less open than they propose.

Edgar R. Lee, S.T.D., is former vice president for academic affairs, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, Missouri, and chairman of the Commission on Doctrinal Purity for the Assemblies of God.

*All Scriptures are from the New Internation Version unless noted.

ENDNOTES

1.Christopher A. Hall and John Sanders, "Does God Know Your Next Move?" Christianity Today, 21 May 2001, 38, and 11 June 2001, 50.

2."Reports Relating to the Fifty-Third Annual Meeting of the Society," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 45:1 (March 2002): 187.

3.Resolution No. 2, "On the Power, Knowledge, and Changelessness of God;" available from http://www.sbc annualmeeting.org/sbc99/res2.htm; Internet; accessed 30 May 2002.

4.Resolution, "God’s Foreknowledge;" available from http://www.bgcworld.org/intro/resolu1.htm; Internet; accessed 30 May 2002.

5."Does God Know Your Next Move?" Christianity Today, 21 May 2001, 40,41.

6.John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998), 165.

7.Sanders, 165.

8.See chapter three, Gregory A. Boyd, "What Practical Difference Does the Open View Make?" in God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 89–112.

9.Boyd, 95.

10.James Arminius, The Writings of James Arminius, trans. James Nichols and W. R. Bagnall (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1956), 1:445.

11.Samuel Wakefield, A Complete System of Christian Theology (Cincinnati: Cranston and Stowe/New York: Phillips & Hunt, 1869), 151.

12.John Miley, Systematic Theology (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1989 [Hunt & Easton, 1893]), 1:180.

13.Thomas C. Oden, The Living God, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), 71.

14.William W. Menzies, Bible Doctrines: A Pentecostal Perspective, rev. and exp. Stanley M. Horton (Springfield, Mo: Logion Press, 1993), 52.

15.John T. McNeill, ed., Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 21:296 [XXI.5].

16.Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, abridged and edited by Edward N. Gross (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 143.

17.Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1941), 67.

18.Donald G. Bloesch, God the Almighty: Power, Wisdom, Holiness, Love (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 116.

19.For a helpful overview see D.W. Diehl, "Process Theology," in The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 880–885.

20.See William Lane Craig, "Divine Foreknowledge and Future Contingency," in Ronald H. Nash, ed., Process Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), 91–115.

21.Bloesch, 117.

22.David Wells, "An Overview of Openness of God Theism," Contact 32:1 (Winter 2002): 12.

23.John Jefferson Davis, "Reflections on the ‘Openness of God,’ " Contact 32:1 (Winter 2002): 25.

24.For a careful critique from the standpoint of a moderate Calvinist see Bruce Ware’s discussion in chapter two of his God’s Lesser Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000), 31–42.

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