Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Open season on open theism

Definition: "open theism. Theological view claiming that some of the traditional attributes ascribed to God by classical theism should be either rejected or reinterpreted. Advocates typically reject the claim that God is timelessly eternal…God changes in some ways so as to respond appropriately to a changing creation…God's foreknowledge is limited, because of the limitations he has placed upon himself in given humans freewill,"
C. Evans, Pocket Dictionary of Apologetics & Philosophy of Religion (IVP 2002), 85-86. For a fuller comparison, cf. R. Nicole, Standing Forth (Mentor 2002), 398.

I'll now raise some objections to open theism:

I. Practical

These objections don’t disprove open theism. Rather, they assume that if open theism were true, the following consequences would ensue.

1. Such a god ceases to be an object of worship.

A basic premise of worship is that the object of worship is our moral and intellectual superior. Whatever is good in the creative realm is better in God, while nothing bad in the creative realm is mirrored in God. God is the exemplar of all creaturely virtues and antipode of all creaturely vice.

But the god of open theism is a conflicted god who struggles with various problems. He is pitiful at best, and contemptible at worst—a weak, ineffectual, double-minded agent.

2. Such a god ceases to be an object of prayer.

i) If freewill is absolute, then God cannot intervene in human affairs, for his intervention would infringe on someone else's freedom of choice. I must be free to make my own mistakes, and my choices must be liable to irretrievable loss. Unfettered freedom is the freedom to fail. As long as I bet with play-money, the gamble is only a game.

ii) In addition, it would be dangerous to pray for divine intervention, because the god of open theism is subject of the law of unintended consequences. He cannot predict or control the butterfly effect (in a point made by Greg Welty).

iii) Finally, such a god cannot be relied upon to keep his promises, because he may change his mind, or because he must balance one need off against another, and can’t foresee which should take precedence.

3. Chance and fate take the place of predestination and providence.

According to open theism, god can outmaneuver our choices. But this would undercut our libertarian freedom. We would be fated to do whatever such a god wills irrespective of our choices. It is hard to see how this improves on whatever the open theist finds objectionable in Calvinism, while introducing some objectionable elements all its own.

4. Such a god becomes an omnipotent brat

The god of open theism is like Trelane, the omnipotent alien brat in Star Trek episode (The Squire of Gothos) who cannot be trusted to take good care of his human "pets." The god of open theism destroys his toys in a temper tantrum (the flood), then weeps over his broken toys after the fact.

5. God becomes dangerously unstable.

Because the god of open theism is on a learning curve, and prey to conflicting feelings, he is not impeccable. Such a god might become, or might already be, delusional or diabolical.

6. Open theism implies moral relativism.

In order to enjoy libertarian freedom, don’t I need to see both sides of every issue? In order to make an unbiased choice, don’t I need to see some merit, even equal merit, in the opposing position? Unless I can see the good in Nazism, my rejection of Nazism was coerced rather than freely made.

7. Risky business

According to open theism, God puts another persons at risk, but not himself (or only in a trivial sense) without even having the benefit of a solid risk assessment or risk-management plan. Like an investor who gambles with other men's money, the second-party assumes all the real risk.

II. Principial objections

These objections go to the veracity or provability of open theism.

1. If Calvinism is true, then open theism is false. Of course, the open theist will reject Calvinism, but the point is that the case for open theism is only as good as the case for Calvinism is bad, and vice versa. So open theism must disprove the case for Calvinism.

2. Open theism invalidates the theistic proofs. The theistic proofs assume that God is superior to the world, and therefore the source of the world. But it isn’t obvious that the god of open theism is superior to the world.

i) According to the ontological argument, God is the greatest conceivable being. But the god of open theism is not the greatest conceivable being. The God of classical Christian theism is the greatest conceivable being.

ii) According to one version of the cosmological argument, the world is contingent on an unconditional being. But open theism introduces contingency into the divine nature itself. (This also undercuts the modal version of the ontological argument.)

iii) According to another version of the cosmological argument, the world had a point of origin because the past cannot be infinite, for an actual infinite must be a completed totality. But according to open theism, God is, himself, in time, and not a given totality.

iv) According to one version of the design argument, cosmic complexity depends on a yet more complex being for its origin. But it isn’t at all clear that the god of open theism is more complex, or relevantly so, than the world. The god of open theism is, himself, a composite being.

v) According to the alethic argument, a timeless God is the source of eternal truths. But the god of open theism is not timeless, but temporal.

Of course, open theism may be happy to relinquish one or more of the theistic proofs, but that weakens the case for open theism.

3. Open theism works with a flawed hermeneutic.

i) Open theism is selectively literal, and has no principled criterion of consistency to justify its selective literality. It treats the emotive ascriptions as literal, but the corporeal ascriptions as anthropomorphic. It ascribes virtuous emotions to God, but not vicious emotions.

ii) Open theism destroys the promise/fulfillment pattern in Scripture.

When you begin reading the Bible, it looks like events unfold without premeditation, with many reversals and contingencies. But as we continue to read we begin to see a pattern emerge in which events are being orchestrated to fulfill the original promises. So we must read Scripture with one eye on the road ahead and another eye in the rearview mirror.

But open theism only sees the process, the present moment, not the present process in light of the past promise and future fulfillment. Open theism sees particulars, not relations.

Instead of talking, in narrow terms about predictive prophecy (a favorite defeater or undercutter in this debate), let us widen the principle to fill in and fill out the whole notion of divine promise. In Scripture, promise is a broader concept than prophecy. Prophecy is a subset of promise, but promise also takes in typology as well as God's fidelity to his covenantal obligations.

I make this adjustment to highlight the fact that the issue at stake is nothing short of the whole structure of promise and fulfillment in Scripture, whether the NT fulfillment of OT promise, or the eschatological fulfillment of OT and NT promise together.

So this implicates the nature and character of God, as well as the Biblical philosophy of history as a linear and progressive philosophy of history.

It is not enough to say that God could temporarily suspend the writer's libertarian freewill, for that still fails to secure the object of knowledge--especially when the object of knowledge is contingent on the future actions of other libertarian agents.

In other words, both the subject of inspiration (the inspired writer) and the object of inspiration (an event contingent on the actions of many free agents) must be exempted from the status quo of libertarian freedom.

But between promise and fulfillment are ever so many human agents. All of the variables must be lined up in the same direction to yield fulfillment. Any breakdown at any point along the line will generate cascade effect. This could only be salvaged by a classic deus ex machina.

So the question is whether God would have to suspend the libertarian freewill of all the agents on whom the fulfillment is contingent. This is the condition that must be met. Not merely suspension, if need be, of the libertarian freewill of the Biblical authors.

Perhaps the OT would try to get around this by appealing to God's knowledge of what an agent would do based on the agent's character. But there are two problems with this resort:

i) If God really knows what they would do under any given circumstance, then we're dealing with character-determinism, which may, in turn, involve other nature/nurture determinants. In that event, libertarian freewill is mooted.

ii) Or else, God does not know. Rather, this represents an educated guess on his part.

But in that case, it necessitates an educated guess regard every single agent who contributes to the fulfillment of the promise. And if God gets it wrong with respect to even one agent, then all bets are off.

It is hard for me to see how one could probilify a set of nested contingencies or free variables where each is dependent on its predecessor and successor. How can you quantify the sum-total probability if that is contingent on so many freely adjustable variables--where each viable has multiple possible outcomes which would in turn, shift the range of multiple possible outcomes of the successor variable? Any variable can realign the future variables.

How does God even know, on this scheme, who and how many variables there are to feed into the calculus? If, say, the fulfillment of the promise depends, at some point along the line, on the fact that x begot y, and x does not, in fact, beget y--because x was killed before he begot y, or because he divorced his wife, or because he didn't have Viagra on-hand, &c., &c.--then that will branch off into a different genealogy.

This poses a dilemma for open theism. If open theism is true, then the Bible must, in some measure be false, and that might just as well extend to those portions of narrative theology or prophetic optatives which form the Scriptural case for open theism.

In addition, there is more to this than the bare minimum needed to be justified in what one believes. A promise demands a higher warrant than that. In making a promise, I assume an obligation to another--an obligation to make good on my promise. That entails a higher obligation than I owe to myself for my own epistemic duties.

4. Open theism assigns a supreme value to that freewill.

It is not the least bit obvious, that even if we had libertarian freewill, it would be of such overwhelming worth as to trump every other good and override every evil consequence, however horrendous.

How is the freedom to make myself and others miserable either an end in itself or a means to an end?

5. Open theism assumes the existence of freewill.

i) Again, it is far from obvious that we have sort of freedom that open theism attributes to us. Where’s the evidence? How is this consistent with instinctual behavior, social conditioning, social disadvantages, hereditary character traits, subliminal motives. How much libertarian freedom does a political prisoner enjoy?

ii) Since we can only makee one choice at a time, and by so doing, eliminate other options, why is it necessary to have a range of choices—most of which we’ll never choose?

iii) Open theism assigns belief-formation to the will rather than reason. But, as a rule, our beliefs are formed automatically and often unconsciously. We simply find certain things to be credible, and others incredible or less credible. We have a predisposition to believe some things, and not others. Presented with the relevant evidence, we believe or disbelieve accordingly. Likewise, we have very little direct control over our feelings—especially how we feel about others.

Now, there are certain things we can do that may affect what we believe or how we feel. But there’s nothing contra-causal about this process of reorientation. To the contrary, we expose ourselves to certain information or situations that may influence our attitude or outlook.

iv) Is the concept of libertarian freedom even coherent? Do I have any control over my own choices, or must they be out of character to be truly free? If so, aren’t my choices determined by external factors outside my control? If not, aren’t they determined by internal factors (my innate predisposition) beyond my control?

6. Love or freedom?

i) There is a fundamental tension in open theism between divine love and human freedom. If divine love is the absolute, then it trumps human freedom; if human freedom is the absolute, then it trumps divine love.

Taken to its logical extreme, divine loves either implies Calvinism or universalism. Take to its logical extreme, human freedom implies Deism and conditional immortality.

ii) It is arbitrary to insist that God is necessarily loving while man is necessarily free. If open theism is true, why shouldn’t its morality and psychology apply to God as well? Why shouldn’t God be free to love or not to love?

7. How does ignorance absolve God of evil? If a mother leaves a toddler alone in the kitchen with a boiling pot within arms reach, and the child scalds itself to death, is the mother innocent because she didn’t know that this would happen, but only knew it to be possible?

In fact, isn’t that precisely why we would charge her with depraved indifference and reckless endangerment? Because she did know that possible outcome.

8. Can the god of open theism really overrule our choices?

To use the chess analogy, when you have two or more players, the range of moves is mutually limiting. For every actual move there were number of possible moves. Not every move is a winning move. And once I make a move, that draw down on the number of winning counter-measures you have at your disposal.

For the open theist insist that God always has enough winning moves in reserve to achieve checkmate is not self-evident.

9. Must God suffer with me?

To insist that God must suffer with me assumes that God must personally duplicate all my human relationships. But that doesn’t obtain even at a human level. Human beings assume different roles, and receive emotional support in relation to those differing roles. A normal human male gets one form of emotional satisfaction from his mother, another from his wife. His mother is not a substitute for his wife, or vice versa. He gets one form of emotional satisfaction from his father, another from his son. His father is not a substitute for his son, or vice versa.

God supplies many of our emotional need indirectly rather than directly, by constituting human society according to certain role-relationships. And some examples are less direct than others. God is a father figure, but he is not my wife or brother or daughter.

In relation to human suffering, God is not like a father who suffers with a suffering child, but like a physician who treats a suffering patient. If I’m insane, the last thing I need is to be treated by a psychiatrist who is also insane!


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  2. Hello, just visited your bible blog, I also have a bible related website, it's about some books which is helpful to understand the God's Words

  3. Steve, I agree with your position on open theism, as does our luminary C.S. Lewis. The Bible does have some strategic and tactical ambiguity, but its overall schematic, and God's plan and God's economy is laid out fairly clearly. I am an evangelical protestant, but I once met a jesuit medical missionary who understood my theology and understood his, we disagreed to high heaven , but we understood our disagreement.That's the key.Armageddon reads the same in any lexicon!