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Distinguishing Process Theology and Open Theism

Distinguishing Process Theology and Open Theism

Garden Time
© Tonyd | Dreamstime Stock Photos

I have been asked whether I accept open theism or process theology. The fact is that I accept extreme uncertainty about the way God relates to space and time, but that I think the process theologians come closer to the way the Bible story seems to read while traditional theism seems to come closer to the assertions Bible writers make about God.

In a way it’s much like my view on the Calvinist-Arminian divide. I think there is scripture on both sides, with the Bible writers moving forward without much concern for resolving the tension between sovereign control and the true free will of creatures, both of which are affirmed in scripture, I believe. God thus remains both outside of time and yet interactive within it; both in control of all that takes place, yet impacted by events chosen by people.

It seems to me that one cannot read the story of God’s action in this world in scripture without seeing the evidence of interaction. If nothing else, Jeremiah 18, to which I refer frequently in my Eschatology series, which explicitly says that God will speak in one way, yet if the people involved change their minds, God will change his. God repents.

Now I’ve heard plenty of ways of explaining this, but none of them feel “settled” to me, so I won’t use the word “heretic” anywhere on the spectrum. Well, I rarely use that word other than with intended humor in any case. I’ve been dubbed Henry the Heretic, (usually) in a friendly way!

Let me summarize these views on God’s relationship to time broadly:

  1. Calvinism – God is sovereign over all and predetermines all that takes place. There are, in fact, a spectrum of views on the details, but this is an intended (over)simplification.
  2. Arminianism – God foresees all, and predestines as he foresees. There are a variety again of ways of seeing the details. This view, along with Calvinism, preserves omniscience in the sense of God knowing every details of what will take place from start to finish, from  the end to the beginning.
  3. Open Theism – God could know all of time, but has created space-time, and us in it, in such a way that he does not. In other words, he limits his own knowledge and therefore can interact with us. There are again quite a number of ways of expressing or explaining this relationship. I owe this one to a conversation with Dr. Richard Rice, author of The Openness of God (no longer in print, reprinted as God’s Foreknowledge and Man’s Freewill), but I am relaying the gist by memory, not quoting any of Dr. Rice’s work.
  4. Process Theology – God is inextricably linked with creation and is not so much in control as we might like to think. Free will is, as I understand it, an integral part of everything and God does, in fact respond. For a bit more detail I’d refer you to Bruce Epperly, Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God, which I publish.

My personal position remains in the open theism camp, with a very strong sprinkling of “I don’t really know” thrown in. It’s just that for me those things short of open theism do not adequately express the view of God that the overarching Bible story expresses, while process theology seems to be a bridge too far for me. But as you can see by the fact that I cite a book I edited and published, not to mention requested from the author as a source on process theology, I hardly regard it as the dangerous heresy that many do.

In fact, one of the things I have become more and more convinced of as I work as a publisher is that people’s actions are not very directly related to their doctrines. I once would have thought that Calvinists would not be that involved in missions, because God has predestined everyone. Yet they carry out missions with vigor. I might have expected Arminians to be less likely than others to “blame God” for every little thing that happens, yet they do precisely that. Both Arminians and Calvinists will talk about their prayers changing the course of hurricanes, surely something at least as predetermined as a human life.

“Orthodox” theologians, by which in this one quoted instance I mean both Arminians and Calvinists, as they both assert full sovereignty, omnipotence, omniscience, and free will, doubt that process theologians will pray, and certainly, if they pray, will not expect God to act. Yes they do, as do open theists.

In fact, if we observed behavior, we would likely find ourselves dividing Christians very differently from the way we do with regard to doctrine. I hope, in this case, to have done some distinguishing without further division!

Reflecting on Today’s Sunday School Discussion

Reflecting on Today’s Sunday School Discussion

9781631990021Today my Sunday School class, The Way at First UMC Pensacola, will spend a second week discussing Process Theology after reading Bruce Epperly’s little introduction (Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God).

Last week we spent most of our time on definitions. Asked to relate Calvinism, Arminianism, Openness Theology, and Process Theology, here’s what I came up with. Perhaps my more theologically inclined readers will tell me how I did.

  • Calvinism – God created the universe and foreordained all that would happen. He knows the future both because he does it, and because he is above space and time, transcendent.
  • Arminianism – God created the universe, and the people in it have real free choice, an impact on what happens, and God elected those who he foreknew would choose salvation. As with the Calvinists, God is seen as separate from the universe, not bound by time and space.
  • Openness – God created the universe as described by the Arminians, but has chosen to work within the universe and not to know. It is as though all time and space is available for God to see, but he chooses not to see all time, and thus works with us as though he lacks this form of foreknowledge. (Note: I have also heard openness express as “God knows everything there is to know, but the future is not there to know. I got the definition I used through an interview with Dr. Richard Rice of Loma Linda University and am using it from memory, so I wish to credit him without blaming him for the way I shortened it!)
  • Process Theology – God is entangled with space and time, expressed by panentheism, i.e. the universe is entirely in God. Process theologians talk about God’s action much as openness theologians do but without the same transcendence. (Note that this is not the same as pantheism, in with the universe and God are the same.)

One of the questions I will ask today is this: How much difference does your belief on these various systems make in the way you relate to God and to others? Is this important or trivial?

My own comment is that while I personally don’t find Calvinism scripturally acceptable (though I certainly understand where it comes from scripturally), I have never had difficulty working with Calvinists in ministry and mission. (A few of them have difficulty working with me, I suppose, but really not that many.) So while I’m Arminian with a certain sympathy for the openness position, I don’t consider this some sort of test of fellowship or faith. The reason is simple: I don’t think I know the answer. I see in scripture God interacting with people as though the outcome was in doubt. I see statements that sound much more static. I see humanity’s free will and responsibility asserted. I see God’s absolute sovereignty asserted. I don’t think we really know how they relate in actuality.

So on something that is so contentious, and I think so subject to error, a bit of humility is in order.

Next week we’ll begin studying my own book When People Speak for God. Other than my study guides to Revelation and Hebrews, I’ve rarely used one of my own books as the basis for a class discussion. Fun!

On Publishing a Calvinist Book

On Publishing a Calvinist Book

Gods Desire for the Nations: The Missionary Theology of John Piper

Well, not exactly a Calvinist book, but a book about a Calvinist, in this case John Piper. This is another of my posts giving my thoughts on publishing a new title. It’s a couple of months late, but I think it’s still quite relevant. Be aware, of course, that I may be advocating buying this book, so if you object, you can wait for the next non-commercial post. In connection with this post, God’s Desire for the Nations will be on sale at Energion Direct for $13.99.

The book in question is God’s Desire for the Nations: The Missionary Theology of John Piper, by Philip O. Hopkins. The reason I say it’s not a Calvinist book, but rather a book about a Calvinist, is that it examines John Piper’s doctrinal teaching and whether that teaching is consistent with his missiology. It does not seek to defend or advocate the particular doctrinal positions. As Hopkins notes in the 5th and final chapter:

This work also did not examine whether Piper’s thought is correct; it sought to determine if it is consistent. Determining the “correctness” of Piper’s theology was not the goal. The goal was to see if Piper’s understanding of the glory of God, seen through his understanding of the Two Wills of God Thesis, motivated his missiology. Arguing whether Piper is correct is not relevant to the focus of this book. Instead, the purpose was to connect his theology with his missiology and must come first before defending or arguing for or against it …  (176).

Indeed, it would be quite a daunting task to both examine these doctrinal positions carefully and to advocate them at the same time.

Now my regular readers and those who know me will realize that I’m not a Calvinist, and that I’m likely to disagree with John Piper on many, many issues. Let me just say here in passing that the range of ideas that fall within the publishing mission of my company, Energion Publications, does indeed include both Calvinism and Arminianism. One of the problems I see in the church is that we tend to look largely at ideas we find agreeable, and to the extent that we look at other ideas, we look to variations within our own tradition streams.

There is value in listening to those who agree with us on many things, and disagree on minor points, but there is greater value, I believe, in taking a close look at ideas that are more radically opposed. I can find many variations in soteriology amongst people who claim the label “Arminian,” yet they do not challenge me to the extent that reading Reformed theology does.

Even when I continue to disagree I can disagree with the actual position. Let me illustrate. One of the most frequent questions I hear from Methodists regarding Calvinists is why Calvinists would do missions. Since they believe that people are predestined to either salvation or damnation, what difference does evangelism make? Some assume that Calvinists won’t be interested in missions or evangelism.

But observation of actual Calvinists proves this isn’t the case. The Calvinists in my head aren’t necessarily the same as the Calvinists in the real world. One finds Calvinists involved in missions every bit as much as (and possibly more than) their Arminian brethren. I recall hearing John Blanchard, a Presbyterian evangelist, speak at a conference here in Pensacola. One of the questions he was asked was: “If you believe in predestination why would you be an evangelist? How can you accept both?”

His answer? “Predestination is a doctrine, and I believe it. Evangelism is a command, and I obey it.” I can appreciate that simple and straightforward answer.

But what attracted me to the current volume in particular was a much more detailed look at how these doctrines interact in John Piper’s Reformed theology.

Now don’t get me wrong. This book is some serious reading. It’s not a simple primer to get you through the basics, though it does cover the basics. It’s a comprehensive look first at the foundational positions taught by Piper, and then at the missiology that results from that. Piper makes an excellent subject here because of his very firm commitment to missions in the church.
The text occupies only about 112 pages with about 80 pages of notes, presented as chapter endnotes, and about 31 pages of bibliography. You can read just the text and follow the argument. The notes provide extensive documentation for any point you want to follow further, and include references to a great deal of information available on the web. Thus this book could provide you with a guide to an extended study of John Piper’s theology.

In structure, the book has five chapters. The first introduces us to John Piper and the roots of his theology, including his family background and major theologians who influenced his thinking. The second chapter discusses Piper’s theology in general, and gives us an outline of the five points of Calvinism as understood by Piper, and several other elements of his theology. I was especially interested in the succinct definition of Christian Hedonism.

In chapter 3 we get to the meat of the book, as Hopkins discusses Piper’s missiology and then clarifies his picture by comparing it to that of Bosch and McGavran. I was actually not acquainted with the latter two theologians before reading this book, but the comparison does help clarify key points of Piper’s missiology. For those interested, it is also in chapter 3 that we have an extensive discussion of Piper’s view of hell, compared to that of others, including Pinnock (73ff).

The fourth chapter focuses in on the “two wills of God” thesis and specifically how this relates to the connection between God’s glory and missions. It is in this chapter, I think, that missiologists of the Arminian persuasion will get the most benefit, as well as find the most to disagree with (in Piper’s theology, not the presentation).

The fifth chapter summarizes and presents questions and ideas for further discussion. Should the reader choose to pursue those questions, both the notes (841 of them), and the 31 page bibliography will point the way.

I was discussing this book with my wife and partner in this business while I was thinking of writing this post. I mentioned that this was a hard book to hype. It’s solid. It does what it’s supposed to do, but what single paragraph can I present that has zing? She commented that for the person who has an interest in the topic, the very things I have just mentioned will be the real selling point, and she’s probably right.

So the bottom line selling point on this book is that it is a thorough treatment of the topic at hand. I think there are a few other reasons to take a look, but if you’re interested in John Piper and also interested in missions, you’ll find this book very useful.

I do have an additional hope, that Arminians, and particularly United Methodists will take the opportunity to look at this material and use it to hone their own missiology. The problem I see is that while I believe we have a very sound basis for missions, it has not been communicated to those in the pews as well as it might have been. We often wonder why Calvinists would pursue missions, but at the same time we often aren’t doing much to pursue them ourselves. What is it about our theology that we aren’t communicating? What is keeping us from acting on the very good reasons we have for missions?

That the notion that Calvinists don’t do missions is contradicted by some statistics cited in the book:

… Since then, Piper’s passion for God’s glory and missions have been inseparable. This can be seen in some statistics concerning missions emphasis and Bethlehem Baptist Church. For example, from 1987 to 2000 Bethlehem gave over $6.6 million towards missions. As well, in 1981, the missions budget was $62,270, 22% of the total budget, or $2.50 each week per Sunday morning attendee. In 1996, the missions budget increased to $439,661, 32% of the total budget, or $8.90 each week per Sunday morning attendee; a 356% increase in fifteen years. By 2005, Bethlehem’s missions budget was still about the same percentage of the total church budget, which had grown to approximately $2 million.

Yet I have been told that a United Methodist congregation that place 5% of its budget on missions is regarded as “missions oriented.” Typically the number is smaller. I served as missions chairperson for a church that had no budget for missions, and was also concerned with fundraising for separate mission money because the church itself needed to meet budgetary requirements. So perhaps a theological basis doesn’t necessarily result in action.

There are several things I’d like to see this book accomplish:

  1. Challenge all of us to greater support for the mission of the church, however we define and accomplish it. Too often we debate “how” while actually doing nothing concrete.
  2. Give us all a better understanding of Reformed theology and how it relates to the mission of the church.
  3. Contribute to the discussion of soteriology and particular of hell and its relationship to mission.
  4. Encourage all of us to think more deeply about our theology and the actions to which it should or does lead.
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Responding to Adrian Warnock on Arminocalvinists

Responding to Adrian Warnock on Arminocalvinists

Jacobus Arminius
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve had Adrian Warnock’s post, An Arminocalvinist Spectrum, sitting in my starred items for some time, but I do want to write just a few words about it before I move on. But first, I want to note that Adrian Warnock is one of the Five Sites I Read Because I Disagree, and I’m on his list of top 60 referrers for 2010, even if only at #56. Glad I could contribute, Adrian!

I’m also happy to see this issue divided into a spectrum rather than viewed as a simple, two-sided issue, because there are, indeed, substantial differences between various positions all along the line. I would personally have to say that I accept some points from #5 (Reformed Arminian), #6 (Strong Arminian), and #7 (Open Arminian), though not all points from any of them. But that is part of defining points on any spectrum–there are always people who fall between the points.

As a follow-up, I would suggest reading Spectrum or Divide? A Response to Adrian Warnock, and Adrian’s response in turn here. Matt O’Reilly of Incarnatio, is a neighbor here in the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, though I have never actually met him.

While I understand that some Arminians are embarrassed by open theists, I do think open theism at least grows out of Arminianism. I am attracted to, but not certain of, some elements of open theism. I think there are scriptures, particularly those that refer to God repenting, which sound quite open.

What always bothers me in these discussions, though to his credit Adrian doesn’t bring it up until his point on open theism, is the belief that this is largely a debate about the sovereignty of God. I don’t even believe it deals with the nature of God’s sovereignty. It actually deals with the way in which God exercises his sovereignty.

I’ve encountered this same issue in creation-evolution debates. The argument is that God is more glorified if he created the world in six literal days than if he used some mechanism that took more time, or in which God appeared more distant. But the question is not about God’s power, or about who has the choice. God clearly has the choice. God is sovereign no matter how he chose to create. Finite human beings have no concept of the power involved no matter what the method.

When God works in salvation, it is totally a divine choice how to act. Whether God created human beings with the power to choose good, some of which remains, or God empowers them to make the choice through prevenient grace, or simply makes that choice in predestination, it is nonetheless God’s action in God’s time and it’s God’s sovereignty.

It seems to me that the argument that God gets greater glory if he predestines all who will be saved actually tries to force a very human view of sovereignty onto God. Similarly, a claim that God is more glorified if he gives his creatures freedom is to force our human perspective onto God’s actions.

The only question, it seems to me, is how God actually has acted. To be more precise, I should say how God has chosen to present his actions. Because I don’t think any of us understand this. Deeper than any conviction I have about Arminian soteriology is the simple conviction that we don’t really know–none of us.


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A Calvinist Complementarian defines Arminian and Egalitarian

A Calvinist Complementarian defines Arminian and Egalitarian

… and does so very well. Not surprisingly (to me, at least), this is from C. Michael Patton on Parchment and Pen. To quote his definitions of “complementarian” and “egalitarian”:

Complementarianism: Belief in essential equality, but functional hierarchy in the sexes. This hierarchy is by God’s design and is not due to the fall. Man is to be the leader in the church and home. Women are not to be in positions of authority over man in the church or home, but are honored due to their role in the same way as men.

Egalitarianism: Belief in the essential and functional equality of the sexes. All role distinctions which imply leadership belonging to the man is due to the fall, not by God’s design. Therefore, women can serve in positions of authority over man in both the church and the home. Role is assigned by individual giftedness, not gender.

While I would say that many in each group take things a bit further, for paragraph length definitions, I would describe those as fair, balanced, and even accurate. The same goes for the definitions of “Arminian” and “Calvinist.”

The whole post is worth reading, especially as he discusses how a church can show, and not just teach, grace.

In Which a Calvinist Annoys and Delights Me

In Which a Calvinist Annoys and Delights Me

Or you can call him “Reformed.” I personally dislike that particular term because to many people it implies that other protestants never passed through the reformation, that only the Calvinists “reformed.” All of which can also ignore the adjustments in Catholic theology since the time of the reformation. But that’s all a side issue, and I’m going to use the term anyhow, as those who keep up with theology at all are aware of the current meaning.

I think that Adrian Warnock has an exceptional ability to pick out annoying portions of quotes, as he does in his post Piper on Leading People Towards Reformed Theology. Now I don’t mean annoying in the sense that it is somehow convicting. I mean it in the sense that it frames the opposition inappropriately, in my view, and in this case it looks a bit arrogant.

Now having read Adrian’s extract, I clicked on through to Piper’s original words, and while they still contain that which annoys me, to which I’ll respond in a moment, they come in a much better context. Piper, who is an exceptional preacher in my opinion, even or especially when I’m busy disagreeing with him, is providing advice for a Reformed pastor who finds himself pastoring an Arminian congregation. His advice is excellent. I’d advise any pastor who has a congregation that disagrees with him in theology to follow it.

I think it would work just as well for an Arminian pastor who ends up pastoring a predominantly Reformed congregation, or any pastor who ends up pastoring a congregation that is not in tune with his theology. I’d like to recommend his advice to those United Methodist pastors who end up in a congregation that wants to be entertained, while the pastor wants to become more God-centered. Be who you believe you’re supposed to be. If certain aspects of theology are too difficult or controversial, focusing on God and who God is will be an excellent place to start.

Similarly, if you’re a liberal pastoring a conservative congregation, you too can focus on God. I assume that if you’re a pastor, you believe that the social imperatives you accept result from who God is and what God desires. So preach about who God is.

Of course, as Piper notes as well, there may be a time to move on, and I personally would add that one shouldn’t seek out such a mismatch. But I know of a number of United Methodist ministers who feel very challenged by the beliefs (or lack of same) in their congregations, yet believe strongly they are called by God to be where they are.

All those parts of Piper’s post are a delight. I’m not going to try to quote from it. You need to read the whole thing. In a few paragraphs, Piper gives all of us good advice–provided we ignore the slanted Reformed and Arminian bias, to which I now turn my attention.

Piper says:

In other words, a Reformed position mainly means, God is really big, really strong, really powerful, really knowledgeable, really wise, really great, really weighty, and he is going to be big in this service, and we’re going to make a big deal out of God here. There are a lot of born-again Arminian people who like that. It’s because they don’t see the implications of their theology.

The bottom line here is that this is not really the main Reformed position, at least not in distinction to other positions. I normally like to let people define themselves, but if that definition includes “unlike me” I am quite prepared to object. I too believe God is strong, knowledgeable, wise, and weighty, and you can put however many “really’s” in front of each word, because “infinite” licenses you to do so. I think the worship service should center around divine things as well.

Arminian theology doesn’t imply anything else either. You see, “God is sovereign” means that God gets to do what God wants, and that includes anything whatsoever that God wants to do, including ordaining free will. Somehow some Calvinists think that predestination gives greater glory to God because it takes human beings out of the equation. But you don’t give greater glory by saying something false about a person or thing. If I praise my hammer as a saw, I’m just being silly. It won’t make it a saw, and it won’t make anyone regard my hammer more highly because of its saw-like attributes.

I would note the condescension in the final sentence of the quote about us illogical Arminians. It may seem nice to give us the excuse of ignorance or blindness, but it seems to replace a certain spiritual arrogance with an intellectual variety.

That doesn’t answer the question of who is correct, however, because my argument cuts both ways. If I’m wrong about free will, I do not increase God’s glory by proclaiming it either. That’s beyond the scope of this particular post.

This ties in with my current series on Interpreting the Bible, and particular my last post in which I said:

Now how does this apply to my test passages? I want to make clear here that the problem with the passages I cited is not that I don’t like what they say. My feelings about what a passage says do not impact what it’s now dead author meant to say. The ancients said many things that I don’t like. God is represented as saying things that I don’t like in scripture. My dislike of the statement doesn’t alter the intent of that statement.

When we phrase the problem in that way we open things up for non-Christians to point out that we are simply taking what we like from scripture, for more conservative Christians to suggest that we are discarding passages at will, and for those more liberal to suggest that we haven’t moved far enough.

The inverse is also possible–when one presents a problem of interpretation which involves an apparent contention of two views in scripture, it is quite easy for one’s opponent to represent this as a problem of trying to discard something one doesn’t like.

But my major problem with predestination is not that I don’t like it. I admit I don’t, but I also don’t like the command to “take up my cross” and I think that one is absolutely valid and binding! My problem is that I think the doctrine of predestination, as stated in the Westminster Confessions, misrepresents God, who God claims God is.

So please do go on proclaiming the sovereignty of God. Make God-centered worship services. If you’re an Arminian who has somehow become pastor to a church of Calvinists, do the same. Make your worship services God-centered.

I am reminded of a friend who was discussing creation and evolution with me who proposed the same type of question. “How can this be reconciled with the Biblical picture of a loving God?” he asked me. Well, that is a difficulty, but it is not a difficulty that will alter the facts on the ground. When you get right down to it, things like the flood and hell fire provide at least as much reason to question one’s picture of God. And evolution occurred (or not) whether I believe it, like it, ignore it, or abhor it.

Even the Wesleyan-Arminian view of choice leaves many wondering. How can a choice, even by a prevenient-grace-enabled, yet finite human, settle an eternal destiny? Is it fair for God to allow such an uninformed choice to result in eternal consequences? Under this view, were the sinner permitted to look into the pits of hell when making the decision, would it be the same? Of course the word “fair” here begs for definition, but I’m using it because I’m intentionally framing this in a form based on human feeling. The Bible proclaims that God is just, which may not seem fair!

No, it’s not a question of just how sovereign God is. It’s a question of what we believe God actually has done. I think the evidence, both scriptural and historical, indicates God has, in his sovereign will, left a great deal more to humanity than we would like. But whether we like it or not, God, by definition, gets to make the ultimate choices.