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Distinguishing Process Theology and Open Theism

Distinguishing Process Theology and Open Theism

Garden Time
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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!

Interactive Covenants and Prophecies or God Has a Plan B

Interactive Covenants and Prophecies or God Has a Plan B

It’s interesting to me how we (and I definitely include myself) often read scripture. One concept can easily override another. For example, I recall a conversation in which someone was claiming that no human being was ever righteous. I brought up Job, who is described as righteous in Job 1. “Oh, but that is only as he was seen through the righteousness of Christ,” I was told. Of course, Job 1 isn’t speaking of the righteousness of Christ, and in fact the entire book would be very silly with that change. Job is concerned that he has been punished, but that nothing he has done deserves these results.

This post is a follow-up to Psalm 89: When Eternal Doesnt Last" href="">Psalm 89: When Eternal Doesn’t Last, and you should read that post first.

It’s funny that I begin this post with an illustration from Job, because Job provides a counterpoint to the theology I’m looking at. Jeremiah 18, which I cited in the previous post, talks about how if God is sending disaster, and the recipients of the disaster repent, God will repent of that disaster. One implication that might be drawn is that good deeds result in blessing, and bad deeds result in curses. One need look no further than Deuteronomy 28 to find this theology made explicit, and it is repeatedly hammered in through the various books of the Deuteronomic history.

But what I’m more interested in here is the interactive nature of the texts, the way in which people’s actions are woven in with God’s will with the implication that you can change the future. Even if God has said things will go one way, that might be changed through human action.

In theology we tend to reconcile the differences in some way. God might only appear to react to the actions of humans, but he actually knows precisely what is coming and he does precisely what he planned. It may be considered blasphemous to suggest otherwise. But open theism and process theology both suggest that God is more interactive than traditional theology holds, though to different degrees and in different ways.

My interest here is in the way we read the biblical text, and the way that we understand prophecy and its fulfilment. I’ll get to the covenants shortly.

Imagine a father who tells his children that he will take them all to the movies in the evening. Now think about the father’s mental processes. Did he suddenly realize that in the fixed future he would have taken his children to the movies, and thus he informed them of this information he had received (or divined, perhaps)? Or did he decide at this moment that he wanted to take his children to the movies, and that he would, in fact, do so this very evening?

Given that this human father does not know the future, such as to see himself taking future action, we’ll have to assume the latter. He makes a decision in the present, and he announces it to his children by saying, “I’m going to take you to the movies.” At the point at which he makes that statement it’s true. Being an optimistic sort, this particular father doesn’t think of all the possible reasons he might not make it or might change his mind. He just says he’s going.

Let’s imagine now that the children, having heard of their good fortune, decide that nothing else matters. They fail to do their chores. They ignore their mother. The fail to put away their toys. They say unfortunate things. In fact, they generally make life miserable for their parents.

Now the father says, “Because you have been misbehaving, we are not going to the movies any more.” Does this make his earlier statement a lie? It was true (at least in intent) when he said it, but it does not actually take place.

My suggestion is that prophecies are more like this father’s statement than they are like scenes which one might see in a crystal ball. (If crystal balls worked, which they don’t!) When God says “Nineveh will be destroyed in 40 days,” he doesn’t mean that he has observed the future and seen that this happens, but rather that he intends, in 40 days, to destroy Nineveh. That’s clearly the way the Ninevites understand it. It’s the way Jonah is afraid it’s going to work.

I’m not certain how much difference there is between these two ways of thinking when it is God making the promises or predictions. It makes a great deal of difference in the way we think about what God has to say.

Now we come to covenant, and I’d like to call our attention to Jeremiah 31:31-34:

31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (NRSV)

(Note: I would use “lawful lord” rather than “husband” in this passage, but that gets beyond the scope of this blog post.)

There are a few things to notice about this passage. First, the covenant came with promises (or are they predictions?). Does this make a difference? There are conditions. It is by violating these conditions that the covenant is broken. Once broken, the covenant is not in effect.

Then comes the unheard of grace—a new covenant. It’s not a restoration of an old covenant. That one has been broken, and as we learned in Psalm 89, no matter what we do we cannot make the promises “have been” fulfilled, because they weren’t. David’s throne was removed. There was no one sitting on it. No amount of restoration years later can make what did not happen happen. Instead, there’s a new covenant. God is now on plan B, unless it’s plan C or D and we didn’t realize it. But at least it’s not plan A.

And this is where Christians can go off the rail, especially considering how much this passage is used in the book of Hebrews. The easy Christian solution is to assume that the new covenant that God created is a covenant with the church. And I believe that God does indeed have a new covenant with the church.

But having a covenant with his people the church does not really fulfil the words of Jeremiah 31:31-34, because there he says that a day is coming when he will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. That precludes one set of ideas, specifically that the church replaces Israel, and that Israel as such is no longer a player.

But on the other hand we have the view that everything said in the old covenant, the one that was broken, must still be fulfilled. That is not, in my view, scripturally justified. In fact, that is to make the same mistake as those Jeremiah mentioned (7:1-20) who kept repeating: “The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord!” God calls attention immediately to Shiloh which had once been the seat of God’s tabernacle, but which had not done so well.

So it’s now plan B, or perhaps plan C. (Shiloh?) How do we know the form that God’s blessing will take? Perhaps no eye has seen it nor any ear heard it, nor has it entered into any human heart (1 Cor. 2:9).

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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Bruce Epperly on Prayer Changing Things

Bruce Epperly on Prayer Changing Things

I wrote recently that I prefer “prayer changes you” to “prayer changes things” but I don’t deny that prayer changes things. But how?

Bruce Epperly contributes a post to Ponderings on a Faith Journey that looks at this along with the idea of human freedom. I know that any form of open theism tends to make some people crazy, but I think many of us talk and behave as though something like this is true, even while affirming God’s eternal plans. In fact, I might suggest that living with such tensions is something God intended us to do! Nonetheless I find this discussion challenging and useful.

For my own notes on prayer, which come to a somewhat less firm conclusion, see my essays The Hand of God, The Hand of God – Miracles, and The Hand of God – Prayer. They date from ancient times, or rather 2003.

Reading 11/12/07

Reading 11/12/07

Update: Edited to correct the date in the header from 10/12/07 to 11/12/07. I truly have not invented a time machine!

Here’s some things that caught my attention:

  • Richard Rice Discusses Open Theism
    20 years ago I read his book The Openness of God when it was first released. I was intrigued by its ideas of open theism then, and I continue to be intrigued now. I appreciated the summary of key issues provided in this post by David Larson. (From the Spectrum Magazine blog/Association of Adventist Forums).
  • Hard and Soft Legalism
    OK, I’m a legalist, but so was Jesus. If the point of this series is to show that N. T. Wright isn’t 100% in the reformed camp, then I suppose it’s succeeding. As a matter of Biblical studies, not so much.
  • “What is at stake is the very nature of Anglicanism” (from Gentle Wisdom) and Romans and Rhetoric Again. (Hat tip: Lingamish on the second post.)
    The key arguments are about the Bible statements regarding homosexuality. This is a particularly contentious topic, of course, and I would urge charity on all who participate in it. None of the participants have taken their stands lightly, in my view, and all deserve serious consideration.

Such are the varied topics of which I read with interest!