The Emergence of Open Theology

November 19th, 2009 / 27 Comments

In 1994, a quintet of Evangelical scholars – David Basinger, William Hasker, Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, and John Sanders – published The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God. This work has caused – and continues to cause – an uproar within Evangelical circles.

This uproar exposed the reality that many Evangelical Christians are influenced more by the theology of Reformers such as John Calvin and Martin Luther than has been often recognized. The theological voices championed by mainstream Evangelical groups have often explicitly or implicitly identified themselves with a non-open, non-relational view of God.

The uproar also revealed that a large and growing number of Evangelical Christians are looking for theological alternatives that better fit their reading of the Bible and deepest Christian intuitions. Open theology provides a potentially more satisfying alternative.

Open theology has both expanded and matured since 1994. It has become a well-spring for both theological renewal and controversy. Many significant biblical, theological, and philosophical scholars now openly embrace Open theology or at least recognize strong affinities between Open theism and their own work.

While important differences of opinion exist among Open theists, the similarities among them are also striking. Here are core themes affirmed by the majority, if not all, Open theists:

God’s primary characteristic is love.

Theology involves humble speculation about who God truly is and what God really does.

Creatures – at least humans – are genuinely free to make choices pertaining to their salvation.

God experiences others in some way analogous to how creatures experience others.

Both creatures and God are relational beings, which means that both God and creatures are affected by others in give-and-take relationships.

God’s experience changes, yet God’s nature or essence is unchanging.

God created all nondivine things.

God takes calculated risks, because God is not all-controlling.

Creatures are called to act in loving ways that please God and make the world a better place.

The future is open; it is not predetermined or fully known by God.

God’s expectations about the future are often partly dependent upon creaturely actions.

Although everlasting, God experiences time in a way analogous to how creatures experience time.

These are brief statements, of course, and they do not address theological nuances that matter to Open theology scholars. But these statements are sufficiently narrow to distinguish Open theology from alternative theological options.  And they are sufficiently broad to allow for differences among those who embrace the Open theology label.

I am optimistic about the future of Open theology.  My optimism ultimately rests, however, on grace. I believe our loving God is, as John Wesley put it, “strongly and sweetly” calling and empowering us to live lives of love.  In doing so, we participate in God’s loving reign. Open theology provides conceptual tools to make sense of these truths.

I believe God is, as John Wesley put it, “strongly and sweetly” calling and empowering us to live lives of love. We participate in God’s loving reign. Open theology provides conceptual tools to make sense of these truths. Click To Tweet
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Comments

Hans Deventer

I’ve understood God taking risks to mean that He offers grace and opportunities to respond to that grace, but does not control the outcome of that grace. I think C.S. Lewis was right when he said that in the end, either God will say to man: “Thy will be done” or man will say to God: “Thy will be done”.


Carol VanSlageren

As I read through the 12 “core theme” statements, I was struck by how much open theology is based on a mutual relationship with God, not one of “subject/ruler”… I like that!  God is overall, yet he works with me.


Don Viney

One of the more revealing moments I have experienced at a professional conference came in Dec. 2003 at Asbury College, KY. Tom Oord asked a group of five panelists to respond to the following question: “Charles Hartshorne said that his guiding intuition in philosophy is ‘God is love’. How would you characterize your guiding intuition?” The five panelists were all well-known, two of them (a Protestant and a Catholic) were sympathetic to traditional theology and two were open theists. The Protestant traditionalist said, “The power of God and the authority of the Bible.” The Catholic traditionalist said,“The power of God and the authority of the Church.” The open theists agreed with Hartshorne, adding (both being Evangelical) that the authority of the Bible was also important. I don’t recall what the fifth panelist said or where his sympathies were. However, the contrast between traditional theism and open theism could not have been more clear. I suspect that traditional theists generally make the power of God primary whereas open theists make the love of God paramount.


Tom Belt

Hey Tom,

Great site! Congrats on getting this up and thanks for making your thoughts and projects all so available. Beautiful site, and user friendly. The more exposure the better, I say. Looking forward to the media uploads. Are you thinking of posting a selection of articles and papers (as publication rules permit)?

Blessings,
TGB


Thomas Jay Oord

Tom,

I’ve not thought much about how I want to shape the media page. I like your idea of a selection of articles or something.  I probably need to post more podcasts and video.  Got any advice?

Tom


Timothy Meeks

When I first was exposed to the statements about God made by Open theologians I was appalled that theologians would make such claims that contradict God as we often picture him as omnipotent, immutable, and omniscient in all regards. However, the more I have pondered on the claims made by open theology, the more in line with the Scriptures I have found it to be and the more I have come open to open theology. The thought that sparked change in my mind was what does it mean if God is really love, and if God is relational? As a Christian that wanted to affirm God was immutable I wanted to affirm that God was relational, but at the same time not changeable. However, in order for God to be relational it implies that there is a give and take. In order for a relationship to be relational both parties must be able to affect the other side. So I am not stating that God is prone to change in all areas. I affirm that God is love, and God cannot do that which is not loving, but that while God’s essence does not change, the ways in which God interacts with humans and acts out of his love can change. Love, requires relationships, and relationships require change in some regards. If God cannot be affected by human interaction having a relationship and going to God in prayer are rendered meaningless. Furthermore if God is relational, God although eternal (without end) must be pantemporal. We often want to think of a God outside of time, but in order to affirm that God is relational, God must be active in the present, in order to be a living God. There is much more I could say, but Far too often, what the church has said about God contradicts core claims of christianity. We want to say God is immutable, but we say God can be moved by our prayers. We say we have free will, but then we say God is in unilateral control. We say God is relational, but then we say God is outside of time and humans cannot affect God. The claims we have made about God often do not mirror the Biblical portrait of Gods self revelation. If we cannot experience something about God, we cannot claim it. We experience God as present in our lives suffering along side us, but yet we claim God is outside of time and cannot be affected. We need to stop claiming a God we don’t experience and accept the God of Israel that we do experience! God is living! I feel that open theology provides a coherent explanation of God that is congruent through and through and is descriptive of a loving God who desires to enter into meaningful relationships with the created!


Brian Clark

Dear Tom,

Thanks so much for continuing to talk about Open Theism in a winsome way.  I know that those who carry this flag do so at considerable professional risk, at least if they hope to earn an Evangelical paycheck. 

As you implied in your statement, I think that the real nerve that Open Theism has hit is that it showcases the Protestant need to prove the validity of Protestant theology by interpreting Scripture in light of Protestant theology.  Even more threateningly, Open Theism draws attention to the fact that Western theology, including Western Protestantism, has been profoundly shaped by historical and cultural forces, not the least of which is the astonishingly important influence of early Christian Neoplatonism. 

What I would challenge Open Theists to do is to keep switching fields of engagement and opening new horizons of dialogue.  I think that the Open God, who is more or less the Biblical God, is one who exerts control over present events through promises and threats, neither of which we preach or pray much.  Certainly as Evangelical Protestants, we pray to God partly as a way of avoiding the sense that our actions matter immensely. 
 

And of course, Evangelicalism, with its Empiricist roots and Modernist theories of truth can only be comfortable with theological truths that are manifestly “Biblical.”

I think that Open Theism does more closely reflect the Biblical narrative and Biblical God than does


Thomas Jay Oord

Thanks Tim and Brian.  These are some great insights!


Jerad May

One thing I have really appreciated about openness theology is that, for me, it has clearly identified several of the western philosophical principles of Classical Christian theology that were imposed on a faith that derived from a much earlier, very eastern, Hebrew religion.

The idea that God is emotionally involved and moved by creation is undoubtedly imbedded throughout much of the Old Testament.  Thus, to claim as Christians, that the God that we serve is the same God of the Jewish faith (i.e. the one represented in the Old Testament), yet, under the same breath, embrace a theological system that dramatically contradicts various key principles of the God represented in that faith, is to in essence, pervert the very faith we supposedly profess.  For example, one who holds the idea that God knows all, inside and outside of time, and who is entirely immutable, is embracing theological principles about God that are contrary to the God that is represented in the Old Testament.  This person will of course undoubtedly struggle with the God of the Old Testament, who time and time again, changes His mind, opinion, or course of action based on the freely-willed activity of his creation(Genesis 1:31 vs. Genesis 6:6-7; Genesis 18:16-33; Exodus 32:7-14; ect.). 

It seems to me, that if one attempts to argue the immutability of God in all things as a Christian principle, they are in essence, claiming that, the God of the Old Testament is a different God then the God of Christianity (or the New Testament).  This of course has been done before, by a man named Marcion, who later was determined by the Church to be a heretic.  The openess principles that revist the ideas that God is relational, sensitive, pantemporal, and non-dictating, are far more biblical, and arguably Christian, then what classical theology commonly attributes to God. 

That being said here is my question: What, then, do we do with the obvious greco-roman philosophical influence on New Testament theology? 

Obviously, I wouldn’t say throw it out!  But, Paul, master of both Eastern and Western Philosophy frustratingly invovled both in what we call today the New Testament.


Jaime Yagge

Tom,

Thank you for this forum and the enlightening discussion of open theology viewpoints. This is a fantastic resource for dialog, and I hope that you can engage into serious discussions with traditional theists leading to real examination of the origin and current cultural validity of certain traditional beleifs.


Thomas Jay Oord

Thanks, Jered and Jaime!

Jaime—I plan to post more material on open theism in the future.  I encourage you to express your thoughts on the subject!

Jered – All—and I mean absolutely all—theology has philosophical influences.  The New Testament is no different. I think we must wrestle with the New Testament passages and compare them with their possible philosophical influences. To the extent that writers adopt Greek philosophical categories that we think are unhelpful, we should critique these instances with other passages of Scripture we believe better representative of the dominant themes of the biblical canon.


Ali

Hi Tom,

these statements are sufficiently narrow to distinguish Open theology from alternative theological options

Do you mean all those statements together are sufficiently narrow enough, or each on its own? The reason I ask is that I can affirm the 1st, 2nd, 7th and 9th statements wholeheartedly, and yet I do not adhere to Open Theism. I can also affirm a number of the other statements if nuance was introduced.

Alistair.


ank

Hi Tom,
you state the concept of Open Theism very clearly; it gave me a chance to consider if I am one. An open theist, I mean. Very interesting ! Thanks. Thanks also for providing this place to exchange ideas about this.
I also gained insights from the response Timothy Meeks, thank you too !

Although I am a devoted member of the Nazarene Church, I do not consider myself to be Evangelical at all(in our Dutch system, that is not as odd as it might sound), so I do not need all the explanations from Open Theology to explain God. For instance, I do not struggle with the God from the Old Testament for changing His mind, His opinions or course of actions at all, because I believe the Old Testament is not a book to be taken completely literally. I believe it to be written from a human perspective, as the Jews themselves do, I am told, by the way !

So although I do not feel compelled to Open Theology for the same reasons as others might, the statements speak to me a great deal. And I agree with most.
I do tend to disagree with the part about the future. I don’t think the future is fully predetermined; I think many things can happen. But at the same time, I do think God uses everything to eventually fulfill His plans. So I think the future is not predetermined, but the outcome is fully known by God (I believe). Does that make sense ?


CHUCK MILLHUFF

Tom Open Theology deals with among other things the ancient question of “Why do bad things happen to good people?” If God is not in our future than of course than he cannot stop the train that kills the teens on the way home from the revival meeting to use a very old revival sermon’s close. (One that I have never used) But then it wrecks havoc with God’s providence in an innumerable future issues that I would hate to find Him absent from. How much grief has He saved me or us from that we are not even aware of? I don’t feel comfortable with the whole idea but do feel the love and camaraderie of this blog.


Randall Davis

What we are saying is that ultimately theology is Christological. “the God of the Bible is frighteningly present” Heschel. Also older views had strong presentations of providential government (Clark, McCabe,Olson)missing in your list. Thanks for the discussion.


tim sauder

I am Mennonite and I wrote my study guide in 1982 and was teaching this. Clark who is in Canada was around YWAM with us and in some respects picked up some thinking like I did from the YWAM teachers. My book unpublished is on my website and can be downloaded for Ipod if you want. Just email me. I spent 30 years in changing and writing it so it has lots of thought and scripture.
http://www.youfreeweb.com/timsauder/
note my study booklet that goes with it.


Christina Uehlin

Well….honestly, this is the first I’ve heard of the term “open theology”. And all I know about it is what I’ve just read. It definitely sounds agreeable to me. I don’t consider myself to yet be a critical thinker but the sentence, “The future is open; it is not predetermined or fully known by God” is not a claim I grew up with. In fact, I was taught the opposite—that God knows all future and past. Because He does not live by what we know to be “time”, and His events are lined up differently than ours, He knows all that happens…whether to us it is later in our life or before our time. Something to think about….


Dave Telling

This whole issue is very disturbing to me, as it essentially lowers God to the status of a glorified man. God exists outside of time, and does not have the same limitations of past and future as we do. To think that He is “surprised” or “takes risks” is, in my opinion, heretical, as this idea is contradicted in many places in Scripture. Just because WE do not understand how God can resolve what, to us, are paradoxes does not mean that we have to “dumb down” the transcendent Creator. Open theology seems to be more about trying to make God more like us, than to show us a God whose ways and mind are as far above ours as the heavens are above the earth. I think that the examples given of “openness” are simply the result of human inability to properly describe divine circumstances, and God deliberately using language that fits into our human frame of reference, or perhaps adopting a parabolic style, as we might do with small children.


Dave Telling

As an additional observation… having read some additional quotes by some of the “big names” in the Open Theism field, and some of the critical responses, I found that I had missed a very important aspect of Openness. That is the idea that if God cannot know the future, cannot know what people are going to do, cannot predict what will happen in the physical world – how then can we trust Him to provide sound guidance in our lives. I can see it now: “I’m sorry Dave, I thought I was helping you out when I suggested that you fight that traffic ticket. I didn’t know that it would result in your going to jail and having a criminal record. Oopsie! But I still love ya! I hope you won’t let this little boo-boo come between us!”
Silly, but really – how can we trust a God who would constantly be saying, “Rats – I didn’t know that would happen!” I mean, I can do that on my own!


Jaime Yagge

It might seem understandable that someone like Dave Telling cannot fully appreciate open theology, since his immediate thought after getting a traffic ticket (which by the way means that he broke the law, not anyone else) is to then complains that the God of open theology might steer him in the wrong direction in response to suffering created by his own disobedience to man’s laws. Silly, but really – how can we trust a Christian who constantly says, “Rats – I knew that was wrong, but I did it anyway, so now God needs to get me out of it.”

What Dave might be missing is that (as I believe anyway) open theology does not necessarily discount that God indeed knows all of the potential possibilities of all of the combination of our choices, but can still be surprised at the one we choose and be affected by it and its outcome to our relationship with God and others.


Grady Harmon

Dr. Oord,

I am really excited to journey though this thought of Open Theology. at this point in my education and faith walk I have wanted to start to identify myself with some sort of theology and I think at this point in the game I identify the most with this idea of Open Theology. I really like and understand this thought that our relationship with God is more give-and-take than most people think. I like this responsibility that Open Theology puts on the individual when it comes to our relationship with Christ. I also can handle this idea that God’s essence does not change even though His experience may change.

Like I said at this point I can identify with this idea of Open Theology and I am looking forward to learning more about it and exploring it further.


Dave Telling

Jaime,
I think you misunderstood what I was saying in my second post. The point was NOT whether or not I had broken the law – the point was that if we say that God does not know the future, because it has not yet happened, there exists the possibility that He may direct us on a path that results in unexpected/unpleasant consequences. I do not want to serve a God Who is surprised by what I do! What openness does is remove a sense of stability and security that we need – if God doesn’t know what is going to happen, and is surprised by what we choose, how then can we trust His guidance? We would always be second-guessing what He says (not that we don’t do that now, but you know what I mean!) because we wouldn’t have the confidence that He really was in control of things. Imagine this: “Mary, I want you to endure gossip and ridicule from your neighbors, and likely being shunned by your family and friends when you show up pregnant and unmarried. And oh, by the way – they won’t believe you when you tell then what happened. I’ll get the word to Joe, and I’m pretty sure everything will work out OK, but can’t guarantee anything, so what do you say?”
I don’t think I’d be willing to stake my life on a “I’m pretty sure…” kind of God.


Troy

[Creatures – at least humans – are genuinely free to make choices pertaining to their salvation.]

Only because of the ministry of the Spirit and prevenient grace.

[The future is open; it is not predetermined or fully known by God.]

Does not the Lord know exhaustively all of the possibilities available to come to pass, and has eternally prepared for each and every possibility with the wisest possible plan in place? Moreover, part of the future is set in stone due to God’s purposes that aren’t contingent on man’s cooperation? Perhaps this is splitting hairs, but I think it needs to be more concise lest it be misrepresented by its opponents.


Mike

Hope you don’t mind me commenting.  It was a helpful list to summarize the Open Theology position, which I appreciate.

“God’s primary characteristic is love.”  It is interesting how even this opening statement leaves a lot unsaid!  I am no expert, but I think the reformers starting point might be said to be “God is.”  It is only then that one can go on to asked what is this God like?  What characteristics does He have?  Of all of them, is there a good reason to emphasis love over others?  Does that come from our experience of ourselves or our experience of God? etc.

There is old joke about someone asking directions to somewhere and receiving the response, “If I was going to there, I wouldn’t start from here!”  If we don’t start in the right place, we may not end up where we ought to!  “1Co 15:28b … that God may be all in all.” (ESV)

Kind regards
Mike


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[…] intellectual. Let me be clear that I really, really despise disagree with Oord’s “open theology,” or as a friend once called the movement, “process theology lite.” But the fact […]


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