A response to Closing the Door on Open Theism
Martyn McGeown wrote a high profile article against Open Theism. The goal of this series is to examine his claims and give a response. McGeown breaks his article into five parts. He begins with an introduction:
Christians have traditionally understood God in terms of three classic perfections, each with the prefix “omni” or “all”: omnipresent (everywhere present), omnipotent (all powerful) and omniscient (all knowing). These three attributes were until recently accepted by all orthodox theists. Today, theologians can take nothing for granted. God’s most fundamental perfections are under attack. One such assault on God’s perfections calls itself “open theism,” a movement within evangelicalism which denies that God knows the future choices of His creatures. God, according to open theism, has exhaustive knowledge of the past and of the present, but He does not know with certainty what will happen in the future. The future is “open” because history is not, as has traditionally been understood, the outworking in time of what God has decreed in eternity, but a historical “project” in which God and men decide together what the future will be. God has determined the general parameters of history, but He has left much of the future open to allow men to exercise their free will. Because men often choose in ways which disappoint, frustrate, sadden, thwart or even surprise God, He is forced to deviate from what He previously planned to do; but God is flexible and resourceful, and despite many setbacks, we are told, He will accomplish His final goal. Open theism is a radical denial of God’s sovereignty in favour of man’s so-called “libertarian free will.”
We shall see that open theism is a fundamental denial of the omniscience, the sovereignty and the immutability of God, and therefore a denial of the God of Scripture, and the worship of a strange god who has been created in man’s image. As such it must be condemned as idolatry.
Critical scholarship has long pointed out that this preoccupation with the omni’s (omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence) and im’s (immutability, impassibility) is not a feature of early Jewish and Christian theology. Instead it is a reliance on 2nd and 3rd century Neo-Platonic thought. Augustine candidly admits that he believed the Bible was absurd until he read it in light of Platonism. Augustine had to be convinced to abandon the Bible in order to become a Christian. It is telling that much of McGeown’s thought processes owe allegiance to Augustine’s theology. But the Bible stands in stark contrast to these Greek categories.
Here are three scholars (an atheist, a Jew, and a Christian) saying as much:
Christine Hayes (Yale Professor):
Those who confuse the biblical character Yahweh with the “God” constructed by classical western theology may be troubled by the fact that Yahweh is presented in his interactions with humans in the Pentateuch as neither omniscient nor omnipotent. Unacquainted with the god constructed by western theology many centuries later, the biblical narrator( s) felt no such confusion, asserting the great power of Yahweh on the one hand and the absolute freedom of humankind on the other.
Rabbi Sacks (former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth):
The fifth and most profound difference lies in the way the two traditions understood the key phrase in which God identifies himself to Moses at the burning bush. ‘Who are you?’ asks Moses. God replies, cryptically, Ehyeh asher ehyeh. This was translated into Greek as ego eimi ho on, and into Latin as ego sum qui sum, meaning ‘I am who I am’, or ‘I am he who is’. The early and medieval Christian theologians all understood the phrase to be speaking about ontology, the metaphysical nature of God’s existence. It meant that he was ‘Being-itself, timeless, immutable, incorporeal, understood as the subsisting act of all existing’. Augustine defines God as that which does not change and cannot change. Aquinas, continuing the same tradition, reads the Exodus formula as saying that God is ‘true being, that is being that is
But this is the God of Aristotle and the philosophers, not the God of Abraham and the prophets. Ehyeh asher ehyeh means none of these things. It means ‘I will be what, where, or how I will be’. The essential element of the phrase is the dimension omitted by all the early Christian translations, namely the future tense. God is defining himself as the Lord of history who is about to intervene in an unprecedented way to liberate a group of slaves from the mightiest empire of the ancient world and lead them on a journey towards liberty.
Walter Brueggemann (premier Old Testament scholar):
What is most crucial about this relatedness is that Israel’s stock testimony is unconcerned to use a vocabulary that speaks about Yahweh’s own person per se. Israel has little vocabulary for that and little interest in exploring it. Such modest terminology as Israel has for Yahweh’s self might revolve around “Yahweh is holy,” but this sort of language is not normally used, and most often it occurs only in specialized priestly manuals. More important, Israel’s characteristic adjectival vocabulary about Yahweh is completely lacking in terms that have dominated classical theology, such as omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. This sharp contrast suggests that classical theology, insofar as it is dominated by such interpretive categories and such concerns, is engaged in issues that are not crucial for Israel’s testimony about Yahweh and are in fact quite remote from Israel’s primary utterance.
When Martyn McGeown starts his criticism, it is telling that he begins his criticism entrenched in Neo-Platonistic thoughts (notice his adherence to “perfections”, a highly Platonic concept). Where do the Bible authors make similar defenses of Yahweh? We have ample evidence throughout the Bible that plenty of individuals in Israel denied God’s omniscience (they denied God’s present knowledge of situations). Where do the prophets offer a metaphysical defense of God in which God knows all that will ever happen? Wouldn’t that be a primary counter-argument if this was the case? Instead the Bible records an impassioned plea from the authors to convince the people that their hidden sins are known to God. God sees, and thus God knows.
Furthermore, McGeown seems very interested in what Roger Olson points out is an idiosyncratic definition of sovereignty. McGeown has hijacked the word and twisted it beyond any normal use of the word:
There is no “sovereignty” in human experience like the “sovereignty” Calvinists insist we must attribute to God in order “really” to believe in “God’s sovereignty.” In ordinary human language “sovereignty” NEVER means total control of every thought and every intention of every subject. And yet it has become a Calvinist mantra that non-Calvinists “do not believe in God’s sovereignty.” I have a tape of a talk where R. C. Sproul says that Arminians “say they believe in God’s sovereignty” but he goes on to say “there’s precious little sovereignty left” (after Arminians qualify it). And yet he doesn’t admit there (or anywhere I’m aware of) that his own view of God’s sovereignty (which I call divine determinism) is not at all like sovereignty as we ordinarily mean it. That’s like saying of an absolute monarch who doesn’t control every subject’s every thought and intention and every molecule in the universe that he doesn’t really exercise sovereignty. It’s an idiosyncratic notion of “sovereignty.”
McGeown is showing his cards. He is not interested in using precise language to communicate intelligibly with others. Instead, he is interested in a strange theology which has to gain emotional appeal through appropriation of words that have a very opposite meaning. Perhaps the term “micro-management” would have been a better choice of words (or “fatalism”). But there is no appealing word to describe God exerting minute control of all things, because the idea is repulsive. On the same note, the idea is not found in the Bible.
Lastly, the idea that God is immutable is also not found in the Bible, not by any stretch of the imagination. Yahweh is constantly active and calling out for people to respond. Yahweh’s very sharp emotions are detailed in countless texts. God changes His mind, God tests people to see what they will do, God even revokes eternal promises due to unforeseen actions. God literally satisfies His wrath through righteous punishment. The Bible is filled, cover to cover, with God’s changes in emotions, processes, and plans. The claim that the God of the Bible is immutable is not a serious claim.
Rabbi Sacks puts it best:
Far from being timeless and immutable, God in the Hebrew Bible is active, engaged, in constant dialogue with his people, calling, urging, warning, challenging and forgiving. When Malachi says in the name of God, ‘I the Lord do not change’ (Malachi 3: 6), he is not speaking about his essence as pure being, the unmoved mover, but about his moral commitments.
A Detailed Response to Closing the Door on Open Theism – Part 1 [link]
A Detailed Response to Closing the Door on Open Theism – Part 2 [link]
A Detailed Response to Closing the Door on Open Theism – Part 3 [link]
A Detailed Response to Closing the Door on Open Theism – Part 4 [link]
A Detailed Response to Closing the Door on Open Theism – Part 5 [link]