Monday, November 27, 2006

So-so essay about Open Theism

As I gear up for my second year doctrine essay it has made me revisit my first year 'effort'. It's not that great, though the issue it deals with is important and some people might benefit, so here it is (admittedly slightly changed from the form in which it was handed in). Might be worth also looking at THIS previous post.

Is God free in Clark Pinnock’s Open Theism, and does this matter? Discuss with reference to the doctrine of creation.

Classic Theism defines God as ‘free from various limitations’, asserting by this ‘His entire freedom to be Himself and to act according to His own nature and will’.[1] However Clark Pinnock’s Open Theism has recently sought to re-define God over against many aspects of Classic Theism. This essay will argue that the result of this re-definition is that God is not free as classically understood. In Open Theism God is significantly (albeit voluntarily) dependent upon his creation to enact his will. God’s freedom is sacrificed in Open theism for the sake of establishing and maintaining human libertarian freedom. This essay will proceed by defining the extent to which God is free in Pinnock’s theology, moving to a consideration of the importance of this by showing that Pinnock’s vision of God has serious theological and pastoral implications. Much of the discussion will focus on the doctrine of creation since it is in this area that the issue of God’s freedom comes into sharp focus.

Clark Pinnock’s Open Theism proposes a model for understanding God in his sovereignty which is significantly different from the ‘aloof monarch’[2] of Greek philosophy (which he claims has unduly influenced Classic Theism). In his model God’s relational nature means he is ‘open to the changing realities of history’ and ‘interacts dynamically with humans’.[3] However, Pinnock is at great pains to assert that in Open Theism God remains sovereign and therefore (to some extent) free. Over against Process Theism, the ‘Open God’ is self-sufficient and does not need to create the world.[4] God is sovereign and free in creation and has exercised his freedom in choosing to create a world that ‘delights his heart and pleases him’ in which he can demonstrate his most fundamental attribute - love.[5] This in Pinnock’s view necessitated a world where creatures are ‘free beings’ such that humans are ‘able to respond to God’[6] as his partners. Humanity enjoys ‘real give and take relationships’[7] with their creator, relationships in which God is affected and changed by the free choices that human beings make. In creating such a world God, although powerful enough to exercise universal control, ‘willingly surrenders power’, choosing not to predetermine everything in his creation, so as to delegate significant power to humanity.[8] This self-limitation to make ‘room for creaturely freedom’ is properly understood to be ‘freely chosen, not compelled’ and ‘voluntary’ – hence Pinnock argues that Open Theism presents God as free to create, engage in relationship and show graciousness.[9]

However, the limitation of God within Open Theism is of such an order that God has ‘made himself dependent on’ the world in ‘some important respects’.[10] Although voluntary, God’s dependence on the world proves substantial when Pinnock unfolds the nature of the creation-creator relationship. God delegates power to human beings and thus makes himself ‘vulnerable’ - in love he gives humanity the ‘room to rebel against him’.[11] This has led to a world in which ‘evils happen that are not supposed to happen’ and which God could not possibly have known would happen beforehand.[12] Likewise, God neither completely knows nor foreordains the future of his creation, but has set goals which he then works out ‘ad hoc in history’.[13] Even in the working out of these goals God is limited to using those means which will not override free human choice.[14] God’s will can be (and often is) frustrated by human decisions, [15] consequently God has to adapt and re-arrange his plans as he works towards his goal of a renewed creation.[16] In this sense humans are ‘co-workers with God, participating with him in what shall be hereafter’ - a future that is co-determined by God and ‘human agents’.[17] Thus the shape of God’s plans and workings are (at least partly) contingent upon his creatures. This by definition means that God is not free to do all that he desires.[18]

Curiously, Pinnock seems to claim at various points that this Open view of God gives God more freedom than Classic Theism. For example, the Open God is not timeless which would be a limitation of his ability to relate to his creation, leaving God trapped in a kind of stasis.[19] Accordingly, in Open Theism God is ‘transcendent’ in some respects (such as immunity to ageing, able to fully remember the past) but is in time (at least in part) and experiences ‘the succession of events with us’.[20] However, it is exactly this sense of experiencing time with humanity that means that God faces ‘a future that is open’[21] in which his will can be frustrated. Pinnock argues that this in itself enables God to be more free than if he’d predestined everything.[22] In his view God is flexible in how he works out his plans, even when it comes to fulfilling his own prophetic word, hence ‘God is free in the manner of fulfilling prophecy and is not bound to a script, even his own…he is free to strike out in new directions.’.[23] However, we should note that this apparent freedom and flexibility is due to God prizing human freedom to the extent that he will ‘adjust his plans because he is sensitive to what humans think and do’.[24] When God created humanity he ‘placed higher value on freedom leading to love than on guaranteed conformity to his will.’[25]

This vision of human freedom provides a key to understanding the sense in which God is limited in Pinnock’s theology. Open Theism assumes that humans have libertarian freedom - the absolute freedom to decide to ‘perform an action or refrain from it’[26] unconstrained by God’s predetermination or foreknowledge or their own inherited nature.[27] This libertarian view of freedom has traditionally been distinguished from compatibilist freedom – the freedom to ‘act according to our character or desires’ even if our actions are determined by something external to ourselves (such as God).[28] Classic theism has historically denied the reality of libertarian freedom for God or his creatures (even God is constrained by his own nature) [29] at the same time as asserting a version of compatibilist freedom[30] that sees God as the ultimate and first cause of all things. This is closely tied to an understanding of God as the creator but also the upholder of all things. Since God sustains creation he must have full knowledge of it and be in control of all that goes on within it,[31] such that even sinful human acts happen because God is sustaining the being of those who are committing them. Human beings are responsible for the decisions they make, whilst subject to God’s sovereignty, such that even sinful acts can be simultaneously ordained by God for his own (good) purposes. Such an understanding arises from the biblical data,[32] establishes human accountability, and (crucially for our discussion) understands God to be sovereign and free to accomplish all that he desires for his creation, in, despite and through human actions. In Open Theism, whilst libertarian freedom is strongly asserted for humanity, God is denied freedom of spontaneity since his desires are often thwarted or disobeyed by human actions - even to the extent that God must change his plans in order to maintain his overall goals.

To summarise, in Pinnock’s Open Theism, although God is free and sovereign in his initial act of creation, he subsequently acts in relation to creation in ways that are constrained by human liberty.[33] God is not free to accomplish all that he desires but is dependent on creation. We must now proceed to a consideration of why this revision of God’s freedom matters theologically and pastorally. We will discuss two broad areas – the doctrine of redemption (including concerns relating to soteriology and eschatology) and the doctrine of God.

Regarding the doctrine of redemption, since God is not free to accomplish his plans independent of human choice, the decisive factor in individual salvation is human choice,[34] as Pinnock himself virtually admits on occasion.[35] It seems difficult to ascertain why this does not mean humanity can claim at least partial credit for redemption, an idea repugnant to the plain statement of scripture. [36] This creates a disparity between God’s activity in creation and redemption. God was sovereign in creating human beings, but needs their co-operation in re-creation.

It follows that just as God’s will for the redemption of individuals is contingent upon their decisions, so too his plan for the redemption of the world in a new creation is dependent upon the role of human agents. As such the future is ‘partly settled and partly unsettled’ in Open theism.[37] This has serious consequences for eschatology, since in Open Theism ‘no-one knows how God, pursuing an open route strategy, will win the final victory over sin’.[38] Pinnock is keen to retain strong conviction that God remains faithfully committed to his goals for creation[39] and that they will be attained, but the assurance for this is that God is ‘a kind of master chess player’. Pinnock points to the fact that it has taken God over 2,000 years so far since Christ ‘to bring his kingdom in’ to support his view. Although he relates this to God’s patience and long-suffering desire to see many redeemed, the overall impression is that God is taking a long time because he has to struggle with free agents in opposition to him.[40] Additionally, Pinnock offers little reason for why humanity thwarting God’s plans (as at the Fall) is only a possibility ‘in the short term’.[41] Since human beings and the ‘powers of darkness’ have absolute freedom to follow or resist God’s will,[42] it seems at least logically possible that human beings could continue to frustrate the attaining of God’s goals for his creation indefinitely. Since God did not know what Adam would use the freedom he gave him (nor can he know what any other human being will do now or in the future),[43] and since God has no absolute control over such choices, it seems difficult to imagine what God would be able to do were humanity as a whole to resist his offer of grace resolutely and indefinitely. Since many humans evidently do exercise their God-given freedom in this way, it seems there is no answer in Open Theism as to why such a situation could not arise.[44] This allows logically for at least a potential stalemate in the chess game between God and those who oppose him. Pinnock doesn’t take his Open Theism to this conclusion, in fact there are several times where he is keen to give assurance that God will achieve his goals. His system is unable to offer any basis for being certain of this however. Since God neither knows nor foreordains the future, and the unfolding of his plans interact with human beings who can (and do) express their freedom in rebellion against him, there is no certainty that God’s goal of a new creation will ever arrive.[45] Even at best, Open Theism makes the attaining of God’s goals contingent upon human decision; if faith is the ‘condition for the concrete realization’ of individual salvation, then logically it is the condition for the renewal of the creation as whole.[46] Although Pinnock insists God is more powerful than humanity,[47] it is abundantly clear that human choice (an area in which God has limited freedom to act) is crucial for the achievement of God’s goals. Similarly, it is unclear why the future sinless state of the new creation is guaranteed under Open Theism, since Pinnock is ambiguous over whether human freedom remains libertarian in the new creation.[48] Logically speaking, if libertarian freedom is essential to the kind of relationships God intended in his creation, a redeemed creation could not be the fulfilment of God’s goals unless it was retained. Pinnock speculates that ‘a process of transformation that results in a confirmation of character’[49] will render human rebellion impossible. Since even God cannot know whether this will happen, and has voluntarily restrained himself from ruling it out, this seems a slim basis for trusting his promises that the blessedness of the new creation will be eternal.

Additionally, since presumably it was not God’s intention that Christ be crucified before the foundation of the world (if God did not even know the Fall would occur[50]), the cross is belittled in God’s plans, becoming his response to the de-railing of his creation project. Also, since Open Theism cannot guarantee against the possibility that the grace of God demonstrated at the gospel will simply stop working to reconcile humanity to God,[51] the efficacy of the cross is called into question.[52] When Pinnock asserts that ‘when Plan A fails, God is ready with Plan B’, it seems sensible to assume that God would be more than ready to supplement (even replace) the cross should the situation demand another means of wooing humanity.

Whilst Pinnock does not take the logic of his system to all of these extremes,[53] his system does allow for (even logically leads to) such possibilities, demonstrating the extent to which the logic of the gospel is compromised. This is inevitably disastrous for the honour of God’s name and the assurance of his people. Why should the Church trust God to be the best chess player when at times his game has let him down? This is a reasonable conclusion from the way Open Theism limits God’s ability to accomplish all that he desires.

Thus it has already emerged that Open Theism’s limitation of God gravely affects the doctrine of God by casting doubt on his truthfulness and faithfulness. This is confirmed when the consequences of a limited sovereignty for the scriptures are explored. Since God delegates a degree of power he cannot retain control over all aspects of the scripture text. Pinnock acknowledges this as a natural consequence of human libertarian freedom, but suggests that the alternative is ‘what amounts to a dictation of the text’.[54] By contrast he argues that God inspired scripture through ‘stimulation and invitation’ rather than control.[55] As a result scripture ‘expresses his will for our salvation’ – language that seems cautiously far from scripture being words that God could ‘claim as his own’.[56] The problem however is not just the conclusions that Pinnock draws himself but the further conclusions that could be drawn from his system and against which his system offers no safeguard. Open Theism leaves too much room for imperfection in the scriptures - since when God acts in history he is prepared to settle for second best because he values human freedom,[57] why not so in the production of scripture? This has serious consequences for the inerrancy and reliability of scripture, God’s truthfulness and our ability to truly know him.

Likewise, God’s goodness is compromised by Open Theism’s limitation of his freedom. In Pinnock’s system love is a defining attribute of God.[58] However, his definition of love is such that God can and does change his plans and ways because of human actions and because of his emotions. For Pinnock, impassibility is ‘the most dubious of the divine attributes discussed in classical theism’, and as result he postulates that God ‘actually suffers because of his decision to love’.[59] Patristic theology correctly understood impassibility as implying ‘perfect moral freedom’ – meaning that God cannot be diverted from his good will - rather than that he ‘surveys existence with epicurean impassivity from the shelter of a metaphysical insulation’.[60] Pinnock thus goes farther than simply asserting that God experiences emotions and asserts that God ‘changes for our sakes’ with all persons in the trinity suffering at the cross ‘in different ways’.[61] If God changes in this way due to human actions his will is no longer solely ‘determined from within’ and can be ‘swayed from without’.[62] It is small wonder then that a God who is thus open to human contribution is not free to accomplish all that he desires but experiences frustration. However, God is not free to be absolutely good and loving since he is not absolutely independent.[63] By contrast, Frame argues that in the bible it is because God is ‘too strong to be defeated’ that he is able to love (Romans 8:35).[64] A God who is unable to accomplish all he desires cannot be good and loving to the absolute since his love may be thwarted. God may be love in Open Theism but he does not exhibit this quality perfectly. Although this is the reverse of what Pinnock himself argues,[65] it does seem difficult to imagine how God’s love is perfect if its goals are unfulfilled. Open Theism logically suggests God may well be forced to judge someone even though deep down his will would be to love them eternally – God is thus bound by human decision, even in his love. If God’s primary attribute (as Open Theists would have it) cannot be shown to be something which he displays to perfection then surely the whole system is called into question since it cannot be a valid model for understanding the one true God of the scriptures.

Similarly God’s wisdom is compromised if God is not free. Pinnock depicts God as a risk-taker,[66] limiting his freedom for the grand project of a world where human freedom is real and love is possible.[67] As such God is responsible for the possibility (but not the actuality) of evil.[68] However, sin and evil is outside of God’s control, since God did not know the fall would happen for certain and does not know what human beings even now will do with their free choices.[69] As such Open Theism leaves us with a picture of a God who entered into a risky creation project which is now victim to the free rebellion of humanity which God can neither control nor entirely foreknow. God remains the sustainer of a creation which he has chosen not to control, yet all the while it denies his loving purposes. We are left without the assurance that God has any greater plan[70] in mind by the evil which runs rampant in his world.[71] PInnock is most insistent on this point saying that if God foreknew Hitler’s evil

‘…it would imply that he thought Hitler’s evils could serve a purpose and that it was better that, on balance, they happen rather than they not happen. Surely not! God gave Hitler freedom but it was not settled ahead of time how he would use it.’[72]

Extreme evil creates problems for any theological system, but, whilst God’s (apparent) ‘culpability’ in Classic Theism is that he permissively wills evil for a greater good (which we don’t fully see or fully know now, but God does), in Open Theism God can be charged with the short-sightedness that made evil possible, and is able merely to react to it by trying (not always successfully) to make the best of a bad situation. Although Pinnock argues that the world we have as a result is worth the risk God took in creation,[73] others have concluded that, given the number of God’s ‘risks’ that have ‘failed’, the Open Theist God is hardly worth trusting as ‘the paradigm of wisdom’.[74] If Open Theism were true it would be hard to argue that in creating the world and limiting his freedom God has not made an almighty blunder. [75] Since God is responsible for the possibility of evil, is he not negligent to have limited himself from controlling it?

Finally, Open Theism effectively leaves God as merely the most powerful among a number of powers in his creation. As such his Kingship and Lordship are undermined and in many ways resembles one of the gods of ancient polytheism,[76] needing to exercise his rule and move his plans forward by the consent of the other powers especially humanity.[77] It would seem that God’s sovereignty is diminished to elevate humanity to something akin to god-like status. In practice[78] the vital distinction between the creator and his creation is broken down because God is dependent on what he has made, thus Frame argues that ‘if God limited his sovereignty, he would become something less than Lord of all, something less than God’.[79]

It seems therefore that in Open Theism the glory of the Creator and Redeemer God of scripture is at stake. The relationship of the creator to the creation is of such importance that if his sovereignty is restrained then redemption, eschatology and the very character of God are affected. Behind Open Theism lies Pinnock’s belief that ‘unless the portrait of God is compelling, the credibility of belief in God is bound to decline’.[80] It is hard to see how Open theism’s picture of God is an adequately compelling object of faith.

[1] This is a quote regarding God’s freedom as understood in Patristic Theology. Classic Theism has followed the church fathers in this regard. See G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought, (London: SPCK, 1952), p. 4.
[2] Clark H. Pinnock, The Openness of God, (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1994) pp. 103-4.
[3] Idem.
[4] Ibid. p. 109.
[5] Ibid. p. 110.
[6] Idem.
[7] Clark H. Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2001) p. 35.
[8] Pinnock, Openness, pp. 109 & 115.
[9] Pinnock, Openness, pp. 109, 112 & 117.
[10] Pinnock, Mover, p. 31.
[11] Pinnock, Openness, p. 115.
[12] Ibid., p. 115.
[13] Ibid. p. 113.
[14] Pinnock, Mover, p. 139.
[15] ‘The will of God is not something that is always done but something that can be followed or resisted.’ Ibid., p. 40.
[16] Pinnock, Openness, pp. 113. See also Pinnock, Mover, pp. 40-2.
[17] PInnock, Openness, p. 116. See also Clark H. Pinnock, ‘From Augustine to Arminius: A Pilgrimage in Theology’ in The Grace of God, the Will of Man, General Editor: Clark H. Pinnock (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989) pp. 15-30 (p. 20).
[18] By contrast, see Psalm 115:3, 135:6.
[19] Pinnock, Openness, p. 121.
[20] Ibid. pp. 120-1.
[21] Idem.
[22] Pinnock, Mover, p. 51.
[23] Idem.
[24] Pinnock, Openness, p. 116 .
[25] Pinnock, Mover, p. 41.
[26] Ibid. p. 41.
[27] John M. Frame, No other God – Α Response to Open Theism, (New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2001) p. 120. See also Pinnock, Mover, p. 128.
[28] Frame argues that compatibilist freedom is an important concept in scripture, although he also argues that scripture doesn’t call this kind of relationship between will and action ‘freedom’, preferring to reserve that term for true moral freedom – the freedom to do what God says is good. By contrast, he does not regard libertarian freedom as a biblical category at all. Frame, No Other God, pp. 124 & 131-2.
[29] Ibid., p. 128. Also see how Pinnock effectively agrees that God in himself doesn’t have libertarian freedom in Pinnock, Openness, p. 118.
[30] Or ‘freedom of spontaneity’.
[31] In Job 42:2 Job, having listened to a prolonged monologue from God asserting his sovereignty in sustaining and creating all things, declares ‘I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted.’
[32] There are numerous examples in scripture where human sin is simultaneously ordained by God for the accomplishment of his own good plans. See for example Mark 14:21, Genesis 50:19-20.
[33] Thus Pinnock says ‘Creation placed limits on God’s freedom to act subsequently’. Pinnock, Mover, p. 136.
[34] This follows from a libertarian view of human freedom too. Likewise, the extent of human depravity is altered if humans have libertarian freedom, which in turn affects the extent to which salvation is by grace alone.
[35] ‘What was praiseworthy about Abram was his faith, i.e., his open responsiveness to the will of God (Heb. 11:8). His salvation was by grace but conditioned on an obedient response.’ Also ‘God called Abram and he freely responded…In the stories about Abraham, we see a man’s confidence in God mature and God’s confidence in a man grow.’ Pinnock, Mover, p. 40 & 42. See also Pinnock, ‘Pilgrimage’, p. 23.
[36] Frame, No other God, pp. 74-83.
[37] Pinnock, Mover, p. 137.
[38] Ibid., p. 52.
[39] Ibid., p. 43
[40] See Idem.
[41] Ibid., p. 42.
[42] Ibid., p. 40.
[43] Ibid., p. 138.
[44] Pinnock writes ‘…scripture suggest one can be finally impenitent and be excluded from the kingdom…The fact that God does not override the possibility of human refusal is attributable to the value he places on freedom.’ It is not clear what assurance there is that the history of redemption won’t grind to a halt in the face of corporate persistent refusal to accept grace. Were Open Theism true God would be (voluntarily) unable to achieve his redemptive purposes in such a situation. Clark H. Pinnock, Flame of Love – A Theology of the Holy Spirit, (Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996), p. 190.
[45] Ibid., p. 52. See also Pinnock, Openness, pp. 115-116.
[46] Pinnock is unclear as to how the final consummation will come about, though he is clear that it will. Presumably, if humanity simply en masse refused to turn to God then God would either have to rethink how to persuade them (which in turn could potentially fail too) or cut short his plans for saving as many people as possible and usher in judgment and re-creation ahead of schedule! Either way, what God wants has been frustrated. See Pinnock, Μοver, p. 52.
[47] Ibid., p. 53.
[48] Ibid., p. 31.
[49] Idem.
[50] Pinnock, Mover, p. 138.
[51] This is not to say that Pinnock has no objective element to the atonement in his theology, he clearly does. However, by making Jesus’ life and death that which sets in motion ‘a process of salvation and healing’ which ‘must be laid hold of by faith’ (which Pinnock understands to be generated by human choice), logically a situation could arise whereby the message of the cross simply ceases to work due to human stubbornness. In Pinnock’s system, whilst God would not need to establish an objective means of atonement to better Christ, there is at least the logical possibility that God may well need to come up with a new means of wooing humanity other than the message of the cross (or accept the defeat of his plans to reconcile – either way the efficacy of the cross is somewhat undermined). Pinnock, Flame, pp. 96-7.
[52] Pinnock suggests that God knows what will ‘bring his people round’ in reference to the statement in Romans 11: 26 that ‘all Israel will be saved’. But this does not make sense in Pinnock’s system, since many people do not repent. The God of Open Theism obviously has no foolproof way of reconciling people to himself. Pinnock, Mover, p. 128.
[53] See footnotes 41, 42 & 43 above.
[54] Pinnock, Mover, p. 129.
[55] Idem.
[56] Reformed theology would argue that whilst scripture was not dictated, God oversaw all aspects of its production, including the views, circumstance and background of the human authors, such that all the human words and idioms of scripture are exactly as God intended them to be. God worked through the human authors and their decisions so that their words are simultaneously his words. Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine – Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, (Leicester: IVP, 1999) p. 39.
[57] Pinnock, Openness, p. 116.
[58] Being ‘loving’ in the way Pinnock has defined thus becomes the yardstick by which other doctrines such as impassibility are measured. See Ibid., pp. 114, 119.
[59] Ibid., pp. 118-9.
[60] Prestige, Patristic, p. 7.
[61] Pinnock, Mover, p. 58.
[62] Prestige, Patristic, p. 7.
[63] Logic suggested by Prestige, Patristic, p. 4.
[64] Frame, No Other God, p. 56.
[65] Pinnock, Mover, p. 58.
[66] Pinnock, Openness, pp. 124-5.
[67] Love is, of course, just as possible in a deterministic view of God’s relationship to his creation. Human will/desire/choice is a reality - albeit within the overall sovereignty of God who, in the case of believers, alters their desires such that they can start to trust, love and obey God.
[68] Pinnock, Mover, p. 47.
[69] Pinnock uses the example of Hitler. Ibid., p. 138.
[70] Ibid., p. 47.
[71] This appears to negate the comforting pastoral effects of many passages of scripture (as well as contradict their plain sense). See Proverbs 16:4, Romans 8:28-30, Genesis 50:20 and Frame, No Other God, p. 74.
[72] Pinnock, Mover, p. 47.
[73] Ibid., p. 140.
[74] Frame, No Other God, p. 209.
[75] Pinnock himself suggests that the Open view legitimises the questioning of God’s wisdom. See Pinnock, Mover, p. 137.
[76] This comparison comes from information about Polytheism given by Dr Mike Ovey in CD1.1 lecture notes 2006.
[77] ‘God does not monopolise the power…God willingly surrenders power and makes possible a partnership with the creature.’ Pinnock, Openness, p. 113.
[78] We say ‘in practice’ because Pinnock argues that God in himself is powerful enough for total sovereignty. Idem.
[79] This, he argues, is because in the scriptures sovereignty is tied to God’s very nature. See Frame, No Other God, pp. 130-1.
[80] Pinnock, Openness, p. 101.

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