Thursday, January 10, 2013

"Practical" Open Theism and Popular Evangelicalism

The reason I write this rather long post is because I have a growing concern about the theological statements I have often heard from many Christian brothers and sisters in recent months. Some of my readers may have heard of the term “Open Theism” while others perhaps haven't. Because it's a bit of a heady term, I'll give you all the skinny on it.

In recent decades, there has been a movement among evangelical theologians which has taught that God cannot have a true relationship with his creatures unless the future in which he will interact with us is “open.” What do they mean by “open?” Quite simply, they mean “unknown.” Not simply unknown by us, but unknown by God. Their main philosophical defense of this idea is that if the future is comprehensively known by God, then it is also determined or fixed. Therefore, there is no decision we will make in the future that could be other than what God knows. If we are unable to do other than what he knows, then how can we have real freewill? If we cannot have freewill, then how can we have a relationship with God?

This is their main assertion, you must choose between God's omniscience and you're relationship with him. In their view, you cannot have both. One text they use to defend this idea is the story of Isaac on the altar. Once God stops Abraham from sacrificing his only son, he affirms Abraham's faith by saying, “'Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me'” (Gen. 22:12). From this text, open theists reason that because God expresses knowledge that resulted from Abraham's actions, it must be that God gained present knowledge which he didn't have previously. This seems quite reasonable doesn't it?

Because I do not wish to focus on actual open theism but practical open theism, I will respond to these things as quickly as I can and then move on. In regard to the philosophical problem first mentioned, I will simply point out that we should not see the certainty, determination, and foreknowledge of a future human choice as something that robs the event of its legitimacy and worth. Just because we are bound by the different factors that lead to our inevitable choices and just because God foresees them, it doesn't mean they are not our choices. In his book “The Freedom of the Will,” Jonathan Edwards argues that a choice is not free because it could have been otherwise, it is free if it is in alignment with our true desires and is unhindered by external restrictions. If you don't buy that response, I recommend you read his book... it will likely change your life.

In regard to the scriptural example I mentioned, I would like to make an observation from another passage. Should we look at this language of God taking in “new knowledge” so simply and literally? A few chapters earlier, in chapter 18, God speaks to Abraham about the sinful city of Sodom. He says, “I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.” The question we must ask is, what if we take this passage just as literally? If God must go down to find something out, doesn't that call into question his omnipresence? If he must find out current information, doesn't that call into question his knowledge of not just the future but the present as well?

To read scripture so simply rules out the possibility of what theologians have called anthropomorphisms. This is when God appeals to human understanding by implying a human quality in himself that he elsewhere denies as being true in any literal sense. In the words of John Calvin, God “lisps” for our benefit. Just because God foresees an event, it doesn't mean he cannot emotionally interact with us while it presently plays out in our day to day experience.

For many of my readers, this is already a settled issue. The idea of questioning God's knowledge of the future is completely off the table, in spite of the philosophical difficulties of understanding it. So why do I bring this issue up? I have found that in my recent experience there is a tendency rising in many lay Christians as well as pastors to buy into what I have chosen to call “practical” open theism.

What is it that I mean by this? While many Christians may fight tooth and nail for the belief that God knows the future, they refuse to apply this truth to their daily lives in any real sense. Pastors refuse to apply this truth as they preach their sermons. If you don't agree with me on this, let me explain what I'm talking about.

While one could talk about this issue for hours on end, I will only give a few examples. I recently heard a sermon from a very popular pastor who preached about the fall of king Saul. As he reached the point where David took Saul's place, he stated, “David was God's plan B.” He said this after mentioning God's words concerning what would have happened if Saul had been obedient. Do you realize what this interpretation implies? Doesn't it imply that God was previously unaware of the eventual outcome of Saul's reign? Doesn't it imply that God had to make provision for unforeseen events? Doesn't it imply that we can disturb God's plans such that he needs to reevaluate what he is doing?

Not long after this sermon, I heard a dear friend and preacher I know compare God to a GPS. If we make a wrong turn, God recalculates to fix our mistake. Yet again, doesn't this ultimately lead to an implication that God is adjusting his plans due to unforeseen circumstances?

I can fully understand why people have philosophical difficulties with this issue, yet how is it possible for a reasonable Christian who is familiar with the majority of scripture to believe in an omniscient God whose plans can be so quickly thwarted? Shouldn't believing in an omniscient God cause us to trust that he has had a plan from before time began? Shouldn't this cause us to trust that all the mistakes and all the sins that God permits he permits with a loving purpose, and therefore they must be part of a plan? In a universe with an omniscient God, is it possible for there to be even one evil event with no purpose? Is the concept of an “accident” even possible? Perhaps it is worth remembering the words of Christ, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matt. 10:29).

Perhaps some of you think this issue is too abstract and impractical, yet let's try to apply this to your lives for a moment. Have you ever said something like, “I think I've missed the will of God at this point in my life,” or “I think God is disappointed,” or “I don't think I'm in the center of the will of God.” I have heard far too many brother's and sister's in Christ express their concerns in this way. I find this tragic. Should we be grieved by our sin? Of course! Should we try to be wise? No doubt! Yet why would we think that means we can do an end run around the sovereignty of God with a single mistake? What about even three thousand mistakes?

Do we really think that “God working all things together for good” only means he does the best he can to work out our mistakes after they happen? Is it possible for a sovereign God to work our lives out for anything but the best? If you are in Christ, there is nothing in your life that God did not plan for your sanctification. Just read Romans 8:29-30, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” To me it is crystal clear. From before the foundation of the world to our glorification in heaven, our lives are in the sovereign hand of God.

I want to end this lengthy blog post with a lengthy and difficult quote from the great reformer, Martin Luther. Some of you will probably have to chew on it for a while. No, I'm not going to explain his vocabulary. See you all next time!

“It is, then, fundamentally necessary and wholesome for Christians to know that God foreknows nothing contingently, but that He foresees, purposes, and does all things according to His own immutable, eternal and infallible will... His will is eternal and changeless, because His nature is so. From which it follows, by resistless logic, that all we do, however it may appear to us to be done mutably and contingently, is in reality done necessarily and immutably in respect to God's will. For the will of God is effective and cannot be impeded, since power belongs to God's nature; and His wisdom is such that He cannot be deceived. Since, then His will is not impeded, what is done cannot but be done where, when, how, as far as, and by whom, He foresees and wills.”

~Martin Luther

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