By Paul Kissling
As someone who was asked to argue the “pro” side of open theism, I have a confession to make. I am not really “pro” open theism. As someone whose early training was in two Restoration Movement educational institutions, I am inherently suspicious of theological systems, even my own. If open theism has become such a system, I cannot say I am a proponent of it.
But I am sympathetic to some of the questions some open theists raise about traditional systematic theology, whether Calvinistic or Arminian. More importantly, I think reading the Old and New Testaments without preconceived theological systems that tell us what texts must mean suggests that open theists have something constructive to say to the church at the beginning of the third millennium.
In this two-part series, I will take these in reverse order, dealing in this article with some of the biblical insights associated with open theism. In the second article I will highlight some of the legitimate concerns open theism raises with traditional systematic theology and give an overall evaluation.
The God Who Is Involved
The Bible is dominated by a narrative that starts in creation and ends in new creation. That narrative does not portray God as the distant, all-powerful sovereign who watches impassively as his plan works itself out. Instead God is portrayed as intimately involved with his creation and actively attempting to see his plan fulfilled. He seems to change strategies, change his mind, and react as though he is deeply hurt by the persistent, stubborn refusal of human beings, and even his own chosen people, to reject his way. These choices to rebel against him deeply hurt God but they do not deter him from his ultimate purpose.
He begins by working through all humanity in the Garden. When that strategy flounders, God sends man out of his direct presence but directly intervenes when Cain murders Abel. While he acts to limit the potential outbreak of violence (the mark of Cain), violence and other forms of sin escalate (Genesis 6). God regrets he made man (Genesis 6:6). He decides to start over with a “new Adam” (Noah), but a comparison of Genesis 6:5 and 8:21 makes it clear that even a universal flood does not change the stubborn tendency of human beings to sin and rebel.
After the flood he recommissions humanity (notice how Genesis 9:1-6 echoes Genesis 1) but this does not work either. He rejects the strategy of sending a flood each time humanity falls into sin. Humanity chooses to rebel against God, building a city whose founder and maker is not God.
After scattering them, God changes strategy again, this time choosing a single man (Abraham) and his descendants as the channel through whom God’s purpose in creation will find fulfillment. But the chosen nation, beginning with Abraham, also tends toward rebellion. Twice God is ready to give up on Israel and start over with Moses (Exodus 32; Numbers 14).
The book of Judges shows the cyclical faithfulness and unfaithfulness of Israel after they inherit the land. Unfaithfulness abounds in Israel’s early kings and especially in the kings in the north and the south after the split of the kingdom. Every institution is ultimately corrupted from king to priest to prophet.
Finally, after much patient warning, God sends them into exile, first the north (722 bc) and then the south (586 bc). The glorious temple God blessed Solomon to build is torn down. The “return from exile” involves only a small minority of the nations; the post-exilic literature (Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi) makes it clear that, while the nation seems to have repented to a degree in exile, it is still in severe spiritual danger.
The inter-testamental Jewish literature clearly indicates things do not fundamentally change while Israel awaits the Messiah. The chosen nation teeters on the edge of destruction throughout its history.
God’s frustration with the nation throughout the Old Testament era continues into the New Testament era. John the Baptist asks Jews, not Gentiles, to undergo a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. He warns them that being descendants of Abraham is no guarantee they will continue as God’s people. God is able to turn stones into descendents of Abraham and so keep his promise if he needs to (Matthew 3:9, 10). If the Jewish people will not accept their promised Messiah on God’s terms, God will find people who will (Matthew 21:33-44; 22:1-10).
None of this sounds like God’s plan is working out exactly the way he intended. Instead he persists despite the stubbornness of his own chosen people. If Israel as a whole will not remain faithful, he will work with a remnant. If even that remnant seems to lose its way, he will not give up.
Ultimately, after repeated rejections, God sends his own Son, the only truly faithful descendent of Abraham. Just as God cried over the unfaithfulness of Israel in Hosea’s time, so his Son cried over the unfaithfulness of Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37). Peter assumes even the timing of the second coming is dependent on Christians leading lives of holiness and godliness. By doing so we “hasten” his coming (2 Peter 3:11, 12).
The Bible seems to portray God as being very involved in the process with humankind. He grants human beings great latitude; if they abuse it, he changes directions. He does not always get what he wants, but he never gives up on his plan. If John the Baptist is right, God would have found a way to fulfill his promises even if every Jew on earth had turned away from him. God has an ultimate purpose, he gives humans real freedom, and he responds to the choices they make. He is portrayed as a very relational God. He has intense feelings of both anger and love. While these are not human anger and human love, they seem to be real emotions nonetheless.
The God Who Gives Conditions
While the Bible assures us God’s ultimate purposes will be achieved, the promises he makes about how that will happen are consistently conditional. This seems to be so even when no conditions are explicitly stated.
A prophet announced the following message from the Lord to the high priest Eli after he failed to stop his sons from committing gross evil in their service as priests:
I promised that your family and the family of your father should go in and out before me forever. . . . Far be it from me; for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed. . . . I will raise up for myself a faithful priest who shall do according to what is in my heart and mind. And I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed one forever. (1 Samuel 2:30, 35, English Standard Version).
Notice the original promise contained the word forever. Even though the Lord gave an apparently eternal promise to Eli’s forefathers, one that many systematic theologians would interpret as unconditional, in fact there were conditions. When those conditions were not met, the promise was annulled, eternal or not. Jeremiah says something similar about prophecies of judgment or blessing on nations (Jeremiah 18:5-11). Abraham has the promise confirmed with certainty only after he has passed the test of obeying God by offering up Isaac (Genesis 22:15-18).
If God can restart the promise of a great nation by destroying Israel and beginning again with Moses, reverse the promise of an eternal priesthood to Eli’s forefathers, create descendants of Abraham out of stones should the literal descendants be unfaithful, and base the timing of the second coming on the holy lives of Christians, perhaps we need to rethink our concept of God.
This is only a small slice of the biblical evidence that we could cite. The biblical portrayal of God does not sound like the picture traditional systematic theology paints. The God who is unchanging (immutable), without emotions (impassible), and who has absolute and comprehensive knowledge and control of all things is not the God portrayed in the Bible.
The God Who Feels
I would suggest the recent developments in open theism are only the extension of something that has been brewing in systematics for some time. Until relatively recently, systematic theologians have argued that God is impassible, that is, without emotions. The massive biblical evidence that God has emotions has recently prodded even as Calvinistic a theologian as Wayne Grudem to reject impassibility and embrace the idea that God has real emotions. They are not the selfish and petty emotions we humans experience, but God feels pain and anger and joy and love.
Open theism suggests the massive biblical evidence should likewise overturn the traditional notion of God’s absolute knowledge of and control of all freewill decisions of human beings. The Bible simply does not portray God that way, no matter what the systematic theologians tell us we must believe.
Paul J. Kissling is professor of Old Testament and biblical languages at TCM International Institute, Heiligenkreuz, Austria.