In my first post I focused open theism’s defining claim: the future is both “partly closed” and “partly open” and God’s knowledge of it is accordingly closed or open. And I suggested that to say God knows what is closed about the future is to say God knows what “will” or “will not” occur while to say that God knows what is open about the future is to say he knows what “might and might not” occur. Both types of statement express the truth about the way the world is. In the end, God isn’t presiding over the unfolding of a blueprint eternally known to him and whose contents contain the world’s one pathway from creation to consummation.
In this post I’d like to share three core convictions which open theists share. These convictions express what open theists believe about God’s purpose in creating, how God acts in the world providentially, why there is evil, how biblical prophecies are understood, what prayer is and how it works, and what trusting God looks like in a risk-filled world.
Love with respect to divine purpose
First, it’s no exaggeration to say that at the heart of open theists’ understanding of God is the belief that he is love. We might say that all the distinct attributes of God we discuss (truthfulness, justice, holiness, etc.) are just the ‘differentiated truth of love’. Like the colors of light that are split into an observable order when dispersed through a prism, so the attributes of God are essentially just the observable acts of a single reality at work in the world and that reality is ‘love’. The triune God is essentially (and apart from any created order whatsoever) the eternal act of self-giving-and-receiving love the fullness of which is the fullness of God’s own necessary being and existence, and it’s this God who has purposed us to know and reflect his love in the fullness of all our created capacities.
Freedom with respect to creation
Secondly, our being persons who love unfailingly is not something that even God could have created—poof—from the get-go. As created beings, we have to ‘become’ loving, and we become so through the free and responsible exercise of our will. So with a view to our becoming persons who love unfailingly, God endowed us with the capacity to determine ourselves through responsible choice. And not only must we be free in this required sense, but many of us argue that the material, created order must also be in some sense free and self-determining to be an appropriate stage upon which our choices play themselves out.
Risk with respect to providence
By “providence” we mean God’s administration and maintenance of the universe in the achieving of his purposes. And this is where things get complicated because many will agree that God is love and that because God has purposed us for loving relations he gave us the capacity to decide whether or not we will enter into such relations. But open theists embrace a third conviction they believe follows from these first two, namely, that in endowing us with this freedom God takes a certain ‘risk’, namely, that we would misuse our freedom and corrupt ourselves in ways God neither intended nor decreed. Traditional views of providence are ‘risk-free’ in the sense that whatever evils occur they are precisely what God decided must occur in order to bring about the good God is after.
It is reimagining the world to be in some respects a ‘risky’ venture (risky even for God in terms of his always getting the outcomes he wants) which is perhaps the thing that makes open theism most unlike the traditional understanding of God we Protestants grew up with. It means essentially that God doesn’t always get what God wants and that it’s not the case that every particular evil represents the ‘necessary means’ to some specific good that God is after.
Once we accept that our universe is a sometimes risky place of intersecting and often competing divine, angelic, and human wills where much of the good God desires to achieve is by God’s own loving plans is conditional upon our partnering with God, we gain a new and sobering appreciation of all those acts of devotion and obedience that we are called by God to engage in—prayer, missions, counseling, etc.
We can never comprehend how all these relevant factors combine on each occasion to determine outcomes. But we can enjoy profound assurances.
First, we may know that God always does all God can do given his purposes and the context in which the world finds itself to maximize good and minimize evil. A second assurance is knowing that however grave may be our suffering, God is resourceful enough to redeem our circumstances when we cooperate with him (Rm. 8.28-29). A third assurance we possess is knowing that those who trust God with the well-being of their souls cannot possibly be disappointed whatever else may occur in this life, and in the end no present evil will be worth comparing to our final state.
Let me end with a few suggestions. There’s no better way to study of open theism than along the lines of three sorts of evidence: biblical/theological, philosophical, and existential/practical. The best place to begin investigating the biblical evidence is Greg Boyd’s God of the Possible (Baker, 2000). Have your Bible open and keep a journal of questions and observations. Take your time. A second type of evidence for the open view is philosophical, and for the brave at heart I suggest Christian philosopher Alan Rhoda’s articles (http://www.alanrhoda.net/papers.htm). A third type of evidence is existential, that is all the practical implications of believing this or that view. You’ll find some help in sorting through these issues in my MTh thesis on petitionary prayer and open theism (http://www.scribd.com/doc/23300607/A-Critical-Evaluation-of-the-Religious-Adequacy-of-Open-Theism-Toward-an-Open-Theistic-Theology-of-Petitionary-Prayer). Lastly, you’ll eventually want to work your way through John Sanders’ The God Who Risks (IVP, 2007 edition). It’s a treasure trove of all three sorts of evidence.
Part one in this two-part series can be viewed here.
Tom Belt and his wife Anita live in Minneapolis, MN where he is Spiritual Life Pastor at Emmanuel Christian Center. Among other things he directs their Recovery Ministries. They were Assemblies of God missionaries in the Middle East for over 20 years. Tom has also been a frequent adjunct instructor in Bible/Theology and has his MTh from the University of Wales.