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Why open theism is not merely an academic debate

GRACEVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Why should all Christians of all walks of life be concerned about open theism? Are the arguments for and against open theism an example of “much ado about nothing” — an issue only relevant to “ivory tower” academicians? What are the implications of open theism for practical discipleship?

Theology may be good or bad, true or false. Yet, theology always influences how we live. Therefore, I encourage laypeople and pastors alike to follow the example of the noble Bereans and search the Scriptures “daily to find out whether these things [are] so” (Acts 17:16 NKJV).

In my opinion, open theism fails at several levels and, thus, undermines biblical Christianity. I cite at least four areas in which open theism fails.

First, open theism fails biblically. Deuteronomy 18:22 establishes the test of a true prophet as complete accuracy. In matters of prophetic future, a true prophet functions as a spokesperson for the God who knows the future. In Isaiah, the living God chides the false gods because they fail to meet the criteria of telling events yet future (Isaiah 41:21-23). While false gods fail to foretell the future, the living God declares the end from the beginning. The eighth century B.C. prophet connects God’s detailed knowledge of the future with His role as Savior (Isaiah 43:11; 45:21).

Open theists, in contrast, believe that some prophecies will not happen. God, therefore, does not meet the test of a true prophet. Clark Pinnock flatly states that Jesus wrongly issued prophecies related to the destruction of Jerusalem. The God of open theism, therefore, lacks the biblical credentials of a true prophet.

Second, open theism fails in terms of practical discipleship. Prayer is one of the most vital aspects of the Christian life. Open theists teach that a personal, relational God wants to hear from us, and indeed, God may not act until He hears from us. Yet, because open theists, like the deists of the English Enlightenment, affirm that God rarely intervenes in earthly affairs, the natural question is, “Why pray?” Further, since God refuses to influence people, intercessory prayer is useless.

The issue of God’s guidance is another practical discipleship problem for open theists. Gregory Boyd tells the emotive story of a missionary candidate named Susan. Susan sought God’s guidance before marriage; felt that God gave her a specific spouse; yet her husband committed adultery. For Boyd, the proper pastoral response necessitates informing Susan that God Himself was shocked to learn of the divorce. Do you really want to seek out the advice of a God who can have mistaken beliefs, who regretted His own past divine actions such as the creation of mankind (a divine Oops!)?

According to Boyd, God can do a better job providing guidance in short-term matters than He can with long-term guidance. How does this guidance from an “open” God differ from the guidance of another human?

Third, open theism fails as a solution for the problem of evil and suffering. The existence of evil in light of a good, all-powerful God must remain a mystery for Christians. The problem of evil and suffering is a personal, practical issue for many of the leading advocates of open theism because of their personal, existential suffering. (Those who disagree with the conclusion of open theists must respond with tender empathy and compassion to their personal suffering.)

Open theists absolve God of any relationship to evil by ascribing evil to human libertarian freedom. A good, powerful God, for example, could not know of the future rise of Hitler. Therefore, God could not prevent the ascendancy of Hitler to control of the Third Reich. Yet, even in the open theist understanding of God, once God learned of the evilness of Hitler, He could act to prevent Hitler’s atrocities. God, however, chose not to intervene even after He became educated. Does this bring resolution to the problem of moral evil?

Is the open theism explanation superior to the traditional explanations for the problem of evil? In contrast to open theism’s lack of a divine plan, Christians throughout history received comfort from the realization that their suffering served an important purpose for their good.

Fourth, open theism diminishes Christian hope. Some open theists view the church as God’s “good luck,” that is, a risk-taking God achieved His purpose for a people despite a lack of knowledge about the outcome ahead of time. If the church is God’s “good luck,” then how can the Christian experience certain hope regarding the consummation of history? Could the risk-taking God — a God mistaken about past events — gamble the unknown future and lose? Can an “open” God ever be sure of final victory?

Perhaps it’s the possibility of eternal insecurity that causes Pinnock and John Sanders to also hold to annihilationism — the heretical doctrine that those who die without having trusted Christ will be destroyed at death, rather than suffer eternal punishment in hell. The vulnerable God of open theism realizes secure victory only by the absolute destruction of all enemies, angelic and human. In the end, the God of open theism truly changes His character and purposes. In the end, God becomes a sovereign king.

The God described by the Baptist Faith and Message is superior to the God proposed by open theism. “God is all powerful and all knowing; and His perfect knowledge extends to all things, past, present, and future, including the future decisions of His free creatures” (BF&M, Article II, God). To this knowledgeable God, we owe the highest love, reverence and obedience.

No, this is not a merely academic debate with little importance to everyday Christian life. The assault on the biblical, historic doctrine of God found in tenets of open theism is one that must be opposed by all believers — inspired by the model of the Bereans — who know that our future hope is found only in a God who holds the future.
Used by permission of the Florida Baptist Witness, available online at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.

    About the Author

  • Mark Rathel