Open Theism and Divine Limitations
In his book The Future of Open Theism: From Antecedents to Opportunities (IVP Academic 2020), Richard Rice does a myriad of helpful things. He reports on the origins of open theology, describes contemporary debates among open theists, and looks at where open theism might move in the future.
Rice rightly calls openness theology a “paradigm shift” for many who encounter it. This theological perspective can “potentially put a new light on the entire scope of Christian faith.”
Arminians, Wesleyans, and others have tried to make divine love central to theology. Open theology follows suit but adds the element of divine timefulness. God experiences time sequentially — moment by moment — like we do. This view of God and time helps when considering what God knows about the undetermined future. It portrays God as lovingly giving to and receiving from creation moment by moment.
In this essay, I describe Rice’s helpful book. Most of the essay explores his advice to open theists that they avoid using “limit” language when talking about God.
The first half of The Future of Open Theism offers readers a look at open theology’s precursors. This includes books and events leading up to and following the 1994 Openness of God book. In helpful chapters, Rice introduces early formulations of open theism and describes the response that this view of God received.
Much of what Rice writes in the first part of the book is material I already knew. But others will find much here of interest. I was especially happy that Rice reported on the impact open theism has made in philosophical circles. Many do not know open theism is a major player in Christian philosophy and general theistic philosophy circles.
Rice concludes the first half by speaking of the varieties of open theism. He considers the emerging variety as a positive development. (For a similar argument, see my essay “Do Open and Process Theologies Blur?”) This variety shows that the open theism movement has matured, as it moves from playing defense against its critics to encouraging diversity within its tent.
In the second half of The Future of Open Theism, Rice addresses key themes in open theology. Those include how open theists explore questions of the Trinity, human freedom, Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. Rice lays out options with open theism and sometimes reveals his own preferences or novel formulations.
My favorite chapter is titled “Does Open Theism Limit God?” and it begins the second half of the book. “There is a pervasive tendency on the part of both supporters and critics,” says Rice, “to refer to open theism as presenting a ‘limited’ view of God.” He believes saying God is limited “inevitably puts people off.” Consequently, Rice recommends that “open theists avoid ‘limit’ language altogether in describing their view of God.” They should “employ more positive terminology.”
Limit language in reference to God, says Rice, is “both unnecessary and misleading.” It “inevitably obscures the positive features of the divine reality open theism seeks to emphasize.” Besides, says Rice, “the portrait [of God] open theism provides is so rich and inspiring that by comparison the traditional view of God appears limited and restrictive.”
Rice offers five reasons why open theists should eliminate limit language when advocating their view of God. I list those reasons below and make brief comments after each.
1. The connotations of “limit” language
The first reason open theists should avoid limit language is more strategic than substantive. “When applied to God,” says Rice, “the words limit or limited conjures up a God who is restricted, hampered, in what he can do and know, a God who is decidedly inferior to the more robust alternatives most Christians embrace.” Instead of saying the God of open theism is limited, open theists should consider God the greatest conceivable being.
I like Rice’s strategy of describing the God of open theology positively. I’m partial to perfect being theology, and I believe God as envisioned by open and relational thinkers is the greatest conceivable being. I might say “greatest plausibly conceivable being,” because one might conceive of a great being who does not plausibly exist given the attributes afforded that being.
But saying God is limited may be helpful. When I speak with survivors and victims of harm and abuse, they often find it reassuring to hear God’s power is limited… at least limited compared to what they assumed God could do. Many who suffer found my God Can’t book helpful precisely because I said God could not have prevented their suffering singlehandedly. At least initially, this sounds to many readers like God’s power is limited.
My usual strategy for talking about God’s power is to say God is almighty. I realize this word may trigger some people, so I quickly say God is almighty in three ways. God is…
1. mightier than all others;
2. the one who exerts might/influence upon all others;
3. the source of might for all others.
God can be almighty in these three ways without being able to control anyone or anything. I mention this to show I share Rice’s inclination to avoid limit language.
Consequently, I agree with Rice that open theists should portray God’s power positively. I can imagine circumstances in which “limit” language may be helpful. I find it most helpful to talk about divine power in light of God’s uncontrolling love.
2. The logic of omniscience
“One of the most prevalent descriptions of open theism,” says Rice, “may also be the least accurate: the idea that it limits God’s knowledge, or holds to the concept of ‘limited foreknowledge.’” The God of open theism “knows everything that’s logically possible to know,” says Rice. “So there is nothing limited about God’s knowledge.” Open theists should avoid saying God has limited knowledge.
This is the strongest reason Rice offers for why open theists should avoid limit language when talking about God. Open and relational theologians do not embrace limited divine foreknowledge. They reject the notion that foreknowledge is possible for anyone and say God knows all that’s publicly knowable.
The issue that separates open and relational theists from others is the content of God’s knowledge, not whether God knows all. I wholeheartedly agree with Rice on this.
3. The logic of decision
In this section, Rice takes the conversation in a different direction. He argues that even if open theists accepted the idea their God is limited, it would not distinguish their view from other theological perspectives, including a Calvinist view.
To argue this point, Rice explores God’s initial creating. He believes God could create a world without freedom or a world with freedom. “Open theists believe God had a choice when it came to creation,” Rice says. “God could have created a world in which God determines everything that happens.”
Whatever choice God made in this initial creating, the outcome involves limitations for God. If God creates a world with free creatures, God is limited by not controlling all things. If God creates a world without free creatures, God is limited in not being able to interact with free creatures. Either way involves limitations. The real question that divides determinists from open theists, says Rice, is this: What sort of world did God create? And why would God create this world rather than another?
I didn’t find this section particularly strong. The main point seems to be that every theology says or implies that God has limits. God’s creating highlights this. Rice’s overall argument in this chapter is that open theists should avoid limit language for God. But this section says it’s inevitable.
I also have problems with the idea God could create a world with fully determined creatures. Many open theists argue that love compels God to make free creatures. And many believe this argument is a major strength for open theology. I agree. But saying God could create a world without free creatures seems to imply God could choose to be unloving. That makes little sense to me. Most open theists implicitly or explicitly think love comes first in God, which means God must love. If love compels God to create a world with free creatures, an essentially loving God cannot create a world without freedom.
I prefer to say God must create a world in which free creatures were a possibility, assuming complex creatures evolved. In my view, a loving God can’t both consistently love and create fully determined others.
I’d also like to see open theists claim God necessarily creates because love compels God to create. David Basinger seems on board with this view. Those who want to keep creatio ex nihilo could even affirm such necessary creating. I’ll save for another time arguments for why a God of love necessarily and everlastingly creates.
4. The subtlety of divine power
Open theology says God shares power with creation. But “this is often expressed as a self-limitation on God’s part,” says Rice. God “gives up a certain part of his power, so the creatures can have a measure of their own.”
This presents a zero-sum distribution of power, according to which only so much power is available. The more power God gives, the less power God keeps. Rice thinks open theists can avoid zero-sum calculations by saying giving power makes God more powerful rather than less.
A second argument in this section says the God working with free agents is more powerful God than one who determines everything. “It requires a greater manifestation of power or a higher kind of power,” says Rice, “for God to accomplish his purposes in a world where the creatures’ choices are genuinely their own than in the world were God’s creative decision includes all that happens.”
Related to this argument is the distinction Rice makes between exerting power over and empowering others to exert themselves. Rice believes one who inspires and empowers others to make their own decisions is more powerful than a God who achieves objectives unilaterally. Given this, says Rice, it’s “inappropriate to describe open theism as limiting God’s power.” Creating a world that contains genuinely free beings is a unique expression of divine power.
As I read this section, I wondered, “Is God’s gift of freedom something God does because God is loving? Or is this giving something God does as a calculation to be more powerful?”
To put it another way: If the God who empowers others is more powerful than the God who controls others, did the lure of power compel God to create creatures who could be empowered? Or did love compel God to create such creatures?
These questions are relevant, given that God cannot know with certainty whether or how many empowered creatures will cooperate. And this approach suggests that God’s effective power diminishes when creatures do not cooperate. As I mentioned above, I prefer to say love motivates God to create others with a measure of agency and/or freedom.
And how should we understand miracles and eschatology? These two issues have often sparked internal debate among open theists, as Rice points out. It thrilled me to read that Rice believes God will never use coercion to secure an ultimate victory. Eschatological fulfilment is possible only as creatures cooperate with God’s relentless love.
Other open theists may disagree with Rice on this point, but I endorse it wholeheartedly. In fact, the God who eventually convinces creation to cooperate fully would be, according to Rice, more powerful than one who controlled.
But what does this view of divine power imply for understanding miracles? Rice notes a debate about miracles between John Sanders and me. I claim all miracles occur as God acts and creatures cooperate, or God acts and the conditions of creation are conducive to a miraculous result. I believe God never controls when doing miracles. John is skeptical of my view.
So how would Rice explain miracles? He says, God “acts in distinctive, sometimes exceptional, ways – sometimes in ways for which the word control is appropriate.” This seems to suggest God can control but usually does not. Does Rice believe God occasionally becomes un-self-limited to do miracles?
Rice wants to avoid “limit” language for God. Saying God sometimes controls to do a miracle must therefore be understood in some way that claims God was not self-limited prior to taking control. Rice doesn’t explain his view in the book but says he doubts “these alternatives exhaust the options available to God.” This seems like an appeal to mystery.
In his discussion of miracles, Rice appeals to the idea that parents sometimes control their children in the name of love. They might grab a child who freely steps into traffic, thereby preventing harm.
I have addressed the idea parental control in various recent publications. I point out that human parents have bodies, but God is an omnipresent spirit without a localized body. With most Christian theologians, I think God is incorporeal. Humans and other creatures can use bodily impact in the name of love, but God doesn’t have a divine body for such impact. (For more on this, see my essay, “A Bodiless God Can’t Prevent Evil.”)
Furthermore, even creaturely bodily impact isn’t control in the sense of being a sufficient cause. So not even parents control their children in that sense. Most parents have examples of their inability to control their kids!
I’d love to see Rice develop a view of miracles that coheres with his eschatological view that God never uses coercion.
5. The richness of divine experience
The final reason for avoiding the language of divine limitation involves “a concern that is more important to open theists than either God’s knowledge or God’s power,” says Rice, “and that is the richness of divine experience.” He believes “open theism seeks to recapture the biblical portrait of a God who is intimately acquainted with, acutely sensitive to, profoundly affected by, and dynamically interactive with the creatures who bear of the divine image.”
Far from limiting God, says Rice, “open theism provides a rich and vivid portrait of God’s relation to the creaturely world.” Because the future is open, “God is capable of surprise, delight, the momentary appreciation of the creatures’ experiences as they happen in all their concrete detail.” By comparison, God in traditional view is limited.
This is my favorite reason of the five. What Rice describes often goes by the name “relational theology.” It’s why I use the label “open and relational theology” for a family of theologies in which “open theism,” as Rice describes it, plays a central role.
Open and relational theologies point to the centrality of love for understanding God and creation. Most theologians in history – including Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther – have thought of divine love as only outgoing, benevolence, or giving. Rice says creatures affect God’s experience. This means divine love involves being influenced by others, receiving, and responsiveness. God is more like a friend than a monarch.
The piety of many believers centers on a relational vision of God. The God with whom many relate not only creates and gives but is affected by what we do in response. God suffers when we suffer, rejoices when we rejoice, is proud when we love, and is sad or angry when we hurt one another.
The God of Calvinism isn’t a relational God whose experience creation affects. The God of Thomism and Augustinianism is not experiential. Even the Molinist version of Arminianism cannot capture well moment-by-moment divine experience of giving and receiving love.
I agree with Rice: the logic that says a timefull God experiences ongoing relations with creation is the most important concern for open and relational theology. At least it is for me!
The Future of Open Theism is helpful in many ways. I especially like that Rice portrays this theological movement as increasingly diverse. This book prompts me to seek further conversation with Rice and others attracted to this theological paradigm.