By Patrick Nullens
The finest theological questions are those asked by children. Unfortunately they often tend to raise their questions at the wrong moment and in the wrong place.
As I was maneuvering my car through Brussels traffic, one of my boys once asked me, “If God really knows everything, does he know the word perhaps?”
What an amazing question for a 7-year-old boy. I wondered, Is there indeed an element of uncertainty in God’s knowledge of the future?
Does God hope, wish, and anticipate as we do, infinitely more wise but still with a level of uncertainty? Is the future open for God as it is for us? Does he take risks as we do?
The traditional answer is that if God knows everything, he also knows the future in every meticulous detail. Therefore the word perhaps cannot be a part of his vocabulary. But is this answer adequate?
This inquiry is one of the most vigorous and vibrant theological debates among evangelical scholars today. Traditional concepts about God’s essence and human free will are being challenged by what is called open theism, free-will theism or neo-Arminianism.
In this article we will first look at the classical understanding of God, and then explore the new school of thought known as open theism. As we talk about God we should be aware that God’s majesty transcends all our limited human concepts. Yet that does not mean we would better be silent about God. The God of Scripture is near and reveals himself: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13; also Deuteronomy 4:29). However finding is not the same as comprehending. There is always this element of divine incomprehensibility. He is the eternal God who dwells in inaccessible light (1 Timothy 6:16).
Classical theism tends to start from the idea of God as an absolute and perfect being, and secondly explains how this abstract idea becomes personal in the God of the Scriptures. First, what is God? And second, who is God?
All human beings have some concept of divinity. “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen. (Romans 1:20, New American Standard Bible). Consequently, when someone searches for the existence of God he already has some concept of what kind of existence he is looking for.
The abstract concept of divine nature or divine essence is crucial for classical theism. God is by definition the most complete and perfect being thinkable. He is essentially distinct from his finite and dependent creatures.
Most early church fathers were amazed by the striking concordance between the divinity concept of Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and the God of Scriptures. Those philosophers criticized the limited and fickle gods of the Hellenistic world. According to them, God must be the first cause of things and also more perfect than everything he caused.
Much later Augustine, whose influence on the Western church can hardly be overestimated, praised Plato’s deep insights into the divine being.
These [Platonic] philosophers, then, whom we see not undeservedly exalted above the rest in fame and glory, have seen that no material body is God, and therefore they have transcended all bodies in seeking for God. They have seen that whatever is changeable is not the most high God, and therefore they have transcended every soul and all changeable spirits in seeking the supreme. They have also seen that in every changeable thing the form which makes it that which it is, whatever be its mode or nature, can only be through him who truly is, because he is unchangeable.1
A highpoint of classical theism was Thomas Aquinas (a.d. 1225-74). Although in many ways he considered himself to stand in the Augustinian tradition, his main contribution was a critical integration of Aristotle’s philosophy with biblical theology. Aristotle described God as the ground of the world, the unmoved mover. Since God is perfect he cannot change his mood. Immutability means there can be no movement or even emotion in God.
Reformation theology did little to change these classical views. Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin adopted most of the definitions of Augustine and Thomas.2 An illustrative traditional description of God is given by the Westminster Catechism. Question seven oddly asked, “What is God?” instead of “Who is God?” It is a question about that which makes God really God.
The answer this traditional Calvinistic catechism gives is quite bombastic but nevertheless impressive:
God is a Spirit, in and of himself infinite in being, glory, blessedness, and perfection; all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, everywhere present, almighty, knowing all things, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.
In general this form of classical theism was supported by theologians to the present age, including most evangelical Calvinists and Arminians. Of course there were many nuances and differences.
In the Restoration Movement there was a tendency to shy away from creeds and theological terminology, even the Trinitarian language. Barton Stone had difficulty with the mysterious aspect of God’s nature: “Mystery is one of the names of the whore of Babylon, written in large letters on her forehead.”3 What a striking contrast with the words of the reformed theologian Herman Bavinck: “Mystery is the lifeblood of dogmatics.”4 Alexander Campbell was more nuanced, but in general also was averse to theological speculations and preferred to stick to biblical language.
Open theism, a recent arrival in the study of God, takes a very different view. It reacts against the idea that God is mastering and controlling the world. His relationship to the world is one of love. As a leading proponent of open theism, John Sanders asserts we have to change a deity who is the “will-to-power” for a God who is the “will-to-community.”5 Richard Rice names two basic convictions: “Love is the most important quality we attribute to God, and love is more than care; it involves being sensitive and responsive as well.”6
Open theism asserts that God’s knowledge of the world is dynamic rather than static. He does not perceive the entire course of history as a timeless being, but he comes to know events as they take place. God sovereignly decided to be dependent on the world and he can be affected by it.7 This “surrendering of power” is very different from classical theism where God is above time and does not depend on his creatures in any way.
The future does not exist yet and, according to this system, is even for God partly open, composed by many possibilities (contingencies). Indeed, the word perhaps is a part of the divine vocabulary (Jeremiah 26:3; Ezekiel 12:3). There is a general plan with a determined outcome, but not a determined process. God is like a great jazz player who improvises but does not alter the main melody. Open theists stress that prayer is sincere dialogue and presupposes reciprocity, indicating a “perhaps” on both sides.
While it fits well into the thought patterns of the current Western world, does open theism adequately explain how God works in his universe? We will consider more about both open theism and classical theism in part two.
1Augustine, The City of God (Book VIII).
2An important exception was the anti-Trinitarian theology of Faustus Socinus (1539–1604), who favored a rationalistic interpretation of Scripture.
3Quoted in “Doctrine of God” in The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2004), 356.
4Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 29.
5John Sanders, The God Who Risks (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998), 11.
6Clark Pinnock, et al., The Openness of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994), 15.
7The major distinction with process theology is that God decided to limit himself. He is not limited and dependant by nature. His limitations and openness are acts of freedom and love (divine self-limitation). Ron Highfield calls this the “great wall” to protect open theism from being overrun by the more liberal process theology. Ron Highfield, “The Function of Divine Self-Limitation in Open Theism,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 2002.
Patrick Nullens is professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at TCM International Institute, Heiligenkreuz, Austria. He and his family live in Leuven, Belgium.