Pinnock, Alzheimer’s, and Open Theology
I received sad news in an email recently: Clark Pinnock is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Clark sent John Sanders and me the following note:
Dear Tom and John:
I want to inform you that I am now middle stage Alzheimer’s. I will not be able to do my writing etc. I am 73 years now, and I’ve enjoyed my biblical three score and ten. I am not bitter. I have had a good life. I’ll meet you over Jordan if not before.
You are free to make this news known.
Clark Pinnock is a theological giant in our day. His influence has been great, especially in Evangelical circles. This news of Alzheimer’s disease indicates that his active contribution to theology will now diminish if not cease.
Pinnock’s personal theological journey has been intriguing. He moved from affirming a more or less conventional and/or fundamentalist view of God to the Open view he considers more faithful to the biblical witness.
In this journey, Pinnock consistently considered the Bible his primary source for theology. He gave particular weight to biblical narrative and the language of personal relationships found in Scripture. Although he rejected a Fundamentalist view of the Bible, he remained committed to honoring the Bible as his principal authority for theology.
Open theology offers a coherent doctrine of God, says Pinnock, in which each divine attribute “should be compatible with one another and with the vision of God as a whole.” For instance, Pinnock wishes to offer a vision of the God who “combines love and power perfectly.” Unless the portrait of God compels, he says, the “credibility of belief in God is bound to decline.”
Open theology as Pinnock presents it depicts God as a self-sufficient, though relational, Trinitarian being. God graciously relates to the world as one self-limited out of respect for the genuine freedom of creatures. Creatures genuinely influence God. God is transcendent and immanent, has changing and unchanging aspects, gives to and receives from others, is present to all things, and has supreme power. God’s love, says Pinnock, includes responsiveness, generosity, sensitivity, openness, and vulnerability.
Open theology rejects traditional theologies that portray God as an aloof monarch. Influential theologians of yesteryear often portrayed God as completely unchangeable, ultimately all determining, and irresistible. By contrast, Pinnock says the biblical vision presents a loving God who seeks relationship with free creatures. “The Christian life involves a genuine interaction between God and human beings,” he says. “We respond to God’s gracious initiatives and God responds to our responses . . . and on it goes.”
The future is not entirely settled, according to Open theology. This means that while God knows all possibilities, God does not know with certainty what free creatures will actually do until creatures act. Classic views of God’s foreknowledge are incompatible with creaturely freedom, says Pinnock. “If choices are real and freedom significant,” he argues, “future decisions cannot be exhaustively known.”
Open theology does affirm that God is all knowing. God knows all things knowable. Believers should not understand divine omniscience as the idea God possesses exhaustive foreknowledge of all future events, says Pinnock. After all, future possible events are not yet actual.
Biblical evidence for Open theology’s view of omniscience comes in many forms. Dozens of biblical passages, for instance, record God saying “perhaps.” This uncertainty on God’s part means the future remains open, not completely certain. The Bible also says God makes various covenants. These covenants suggest God does not know with certainty everything to occur in the future. God often asks Israel to choose one course of action over another.
For instance, Jeremiah records God offering two possible futures for Israel: “If you will indeed obey this word, then through the gates of this house shall enter kings who sit on the throne of David…. But if you will not heed these words, I will swear by myself, says the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation” (Jer. 22: 4-5). God’s particular course of future action depends in part upon Israel’s choice. God apparently does not know with certainty what Israel’s choice will be. Other Old Testament passages exhibit covenant language in which the future is yet to be decided, and God does not know with certainty what will actually occur.
God cannot be in all ways timeless, say Open theologians. We best conceive of God’s experience as temporally everlasting rather than timelessly eternal. To say God is in all ways timeless implies God is totally actualized, immutable, impassible, and outside of time and sequence. Such a God is static and aloof, says Pinnock, not relational and responsive. The temporally everlasting Lord is the Living God of the Bible.
Those who embrace conventional theology have difficulty accepting Open theology. This difficulty arises because Open theology challenges certain well-established traditions, argues Pinnock, not because it opposes the Bible. Open theology themes appear throughout the biblical witness: “the idea of God taking risks, of God’s will being thwarted, of God being flexible, of grace being resistible, of God having a temporal dimension, of God being impacted by the creature, and of God not knowing the entire future as certain.”
One of Open theology’s greatest assets is its fit with Christian experience. It addresses well the demands of ordinary life and practices of the saints. “It is no small point in favor of the openness model,” Pinnock argues, “that it is difficult to live life in any other way than the way it describes.”
Open theology releases people to live their lives meaningfully, says Pinnock. “As individuals we are significant in God’s eyes… the things we do and say, the decisions and choices we make, and our prayers all help shape the future.” Our lives and life-decisions really matter.
Open theology is preferable in other ways. It points to a friendship with God possible in cooperative relationship. Most conventional theologies implicitly or explicitly reject friendship with God. Open theology emphasizes the reality of freedom we all presuppose. Many conventional theologies directly or indirectly reject creaturely freedom vis-à-vis God.
Open theology corresponds with our intuition that love ought to be persuasive rather than coercive. It emphasizes sanctification in the sense of growth in grace and decisive moments. Open theology corresponds with the view that God calls and empowers growth in Christ-likeness.
Christians should especially prefer Open theology to conventional theology on the issue of petitionary prayer. Most Christians believe their prayers make a difference to God, including influencing at least sometimes how God acts. Pinnock argues that petitionary prayer does not genuinely influence now the God who foreordains and/or foreknows all things. Petitionary prayer cannot change an already settled future.
“People pray passionately when they see purpose in it, when they think prayer can make a difference and that God may act because of it,” argues Pinnock. “There would not be much urgency in our praying if we thought God’s decrees could not be changed and/or that the future is entirely settled.”
Above all, Open theology emphasizes love as God’s chief attribute and priority for theological construction. “God created the world out of love and with the goal of acquiring a people who would, like a bride, freely participate in his love.” Love was God’s goal, and giving freedom the means to that goal. “God is inviting us to join in his own ongoing Trinitarian communion and conversation,” says Pinnock. God “wants us to join in and share the intimacy of his own divine life.”
God’s loving nature is unchanging, but God’s experience, knowledge, and action change in the divine give-and-take of interactive loving relationship. “The living God is . . . the God of the Bible,” says Pinnock, “the one who is genuinely related to the world, whose nature is the power of love, and whose relationship with the world is that of a most moved, not unmoved, Mover.”
Because of this, Open theology “is a model of love.”