The Future of Open Theism: From Antecedents to Opportunities — Book Review

The Future of Open Theism: From Antecedents to Opportunities — Book Review

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Published:
July 10, 2020

Richard Rice, The Future of Open Theism: From Antecedents to Opportunities (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2020). 254 pp. $26.00


For two reasons I appreciated the request from Spectrum to review Richard Rice’s newest book The Future of Open Theism. Firstly, I have had the privilege of getting to know Richard Rice as a very likable person, and I have come to admire him as a scholar and author. And, secondly, I have, for a considerable time, been interested in the main ideas of open theism. And thus, giving this new book a careful read was a welcome means to becoming better informed about this rather recent theological current of thought.

Rice is a Seventh-day Adventist theologian, who for many years has been part of the faculty of the School of Religion of Loma Linda University (Loma Linda, CA). Several of his books and many of his scholarly articles have been published by entities directly related to the Adventist denomination, but Rice is probably one of the best known (and most published) theologians of Adventist vintage in the wider theological world. This new book addresses a much wider audience than just Seventh-day Adventists and its publication by a prominent evangelical publisher will ensure that it will reach a much broader market. And justifiably so, since Rice has been one of the key figures in the (short) history of Open Theism, and his first book on the topic in 1980 (entitled The Openness of God) may well have inspired the name of the movement.

This new book by Rice consists of two major parts. In Part I he chronicles the origin and development of Open Theism, while in Part II he discusses its impact on six specific doctrinal themes. The title of the book (The Future of Open Theism) would have warranted a Part III, specifically devoted to future challenges and developments. These do get some attention in the second part, but the book as such focuses mostly on the past and the present of this theological strand. However, this does not diminish the value of this book in any way. I fully agree with Greg Boyd, who also is an important representative of Open Theism, when he writes: “In this well-written, impressively comprehensive, and compellingly argued work, Richard Rice outlines the past, present and (what may be) the future of open theism… This is simply indispensable reading for anyone interested in this important topic.”1

Chapter One presents us with a few “antecedents to Open Theism.” The first of these antecedents is the famous Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius, who, because of his emphasis on man’s free will, might be named “the father” (of perhaps the grandfather) of Open Theism, as this is also characterized by its insistence on the libertarian free will of human beings. Besides Adam Clarke, an English Methodist theologian, a few other authors from the nineteenth and early twentieth century are mentioned, who were not professional theologians but published books about the issue of God’s absolute knowledge. They struggled with the problem of how this concept could be compatible with a free human will — something that would also become a main concern for open theists.

Chapter Two, with “Early Formulations of Open Theism,” is, in my view, the most important chapter of the book — in any case for those readers who only have a very vague notion of what Open Theism is all about. It begins with Rice’s own seminal publication The Openness of God, which was published in late 1980 by an Adventist publishing house, but was less than a year later withdrawn from publication because of its alleged controversial content. (It was later reprinted by Bethany House Publishers in Minneapolis.) The next important point in this review of “early formulations” was the publication of the 1994 volume with the same name as Rice’s earlier book: The Openness of God. It combined contributions from the main proponents of Open Theism at that time, including Rice. The others were Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger. A few other important, more recent, publications about Open Theism are also reviewed.

Although no thematic summary is given of the key elements of Open Theism, this chapter — and other parts of this book — make clear that Open Theism paints a picture of God that differs significantly from that which is current in most traditional Protestant circles. God is a God of love. This fundamental truth implies that God does not coerce and wants to be served by beings who can make the free choice to accept or reject him. God will do everything he can to convince human beings to make the right choice, but he will not force his creatures. And God does not predetermine everything, like traditional Calvinists believe. Open theists differ from other theological schools in their view of God’s omniscience. God does not know the things that are not knowable, i.e., events in the future that are contingent on human decisions.

An important theme is God’s relationship to time. He is not timeless, or above or beyond time, but God experiences events as they happen, and is intimately involved in all that happens. He is not timelessly eternal but rather temporally everlasting (45). This, open theists argue, does justice to the many biblical statements that ascribe emotions to God and state that God may even regret former decisions or may at times change his mind. Pinnock, a foremost proponent of Open Theism, calls God the “most moved Mover” (rather than using the classical term of the “unmoved Mover”).

In the next three chapters, Rice gives an overview of the criticism Open Theism has received; he then deals with some of the philosophical issues underlying the theology of open theists, and guides the reader through some of the varieties of Open Theism.

In the six chapters of Part Two of the book Rice explores how the fundamental ideas of Open Theism impact some key doctrines of the Christian faith. The title of Chapter Six is formulated as a question: “Does Open Theism Limit God?” The chapter seeks to answers (and does so, I think, quite convincingly), the objections from many “classical” theologians who insist that Open Theism “limits” God. It is, therefore, according to Rice, important that open theists avoid “limit language.”

If God is limited, it is because he has chosen these limitations. It would not be correct to state that open theists limit God’s knowledge, because his knowledge includes every possible object of knowledge. It simply cannot include what is logically unknowable, because it has not yet happened. In his sovereignty God decided to create a world in which he does not decide everything but in which he shares power with his creatures and “creatively responds to their choices” (132). In this way Open Theism “nicely expresses the biblical portrait of God, because it is theologically profound and religiously meaningful” (135). Quoting Pinnock again, Rice states that so many value Open Theism because it “accentuates, not diminishes, how truly glorious God is.”

Chapter Seven discusses some of the implications of Open Theism for the doctrine of the Trinity. Some readers may find this the most complicated chapter in the book. Among other things Rice discusses how the Trinity relates to time and maintains that God’s “generic excellence” can be compatible with his “temporality” (150). It is, however, important to keep in mind what the author says on the last page of the book, namely that all our speaking about God will never “be more than a faint approximation of its object” (238).

Chapter Eight opens with a fascinating look at the concept of freedom from a scientific and philosophical perspective, and then explores what freedom looks like from a theological angle. It emphasizes that freedom makes an enormous contribution to our existence as persons (162), and further deals with the relationships between freedom and sin and between freedom and salvation. Crucial is the personal freedom we have been given to accept God’s offer of salvation.

One of the most profound questions that Chapter Nine (about “Christology and the Openness of God”) poses is, whether or not Christ could have failed the test of his temptations, both at the beginning and at the end of his ministry. Open theists maintain that in his supreme love God took the risk to send his Son to this world, and most of them believe that Christ’s victory over the satanic temptations was not a forgone conclusion. Rice refers to this question of divine risk earlier in the book and returns to it in the final chapter about the impact of Open Theism on eschatology. There the question of risk re-emerges in the context of the conclusion of the entire salvific project. Could the plan of salvation have failed? Rice opines that God has done everything to minimize the likelihood of the rejection of his grace by humans, and that, although some, or perhaps many, will say “no” to God’s offer of love, God’s ultimate goal of a new creation will be achieved.

Chapter Ten acknowledges that faith is a highly personal matter and that in our contemporary western society, with its individualism, the concept of “church” seems no longer relevant. This, Rice says, is a tragic misunderstanding. Open Theism points to the importance of free individuals who share their faith in a “radically inclusive community” (203). Individuality and community do not conflict with each other but enrich each other. “Consequently, no one can be a Christian, not in the full and fundamental sense of the word, and not be part of the Christian community” (205).

In the final chapter some other issues are discussed, apart from the risk God took in giving his creatures a free will (as already referred to above), such as the question on whether history will end when God establishes his new creation or whether there will be “a continuation of temporal passage” — “an unending series of experiences in a world from which the ravaging effects of sin have been removed” (222). A few pages are devoted to a reassuring answer to the question whether eternal life (which is not a reward but a gift of grace) will actually be worth living. Rice replies affirmatively: “The power that brought the world into existence and brought Jesus back to life from the dead [can] bring about the dramatic [future] changes in ourselves and in the world that the fulfillment of God’s purposes requires” (226).

Reading this book was for me a highly satisfying experience and I want to warmly recommend it to all who are eager to probe the mysteries that form the basis of our Christian faith. Some theological knowledge, and familiarity with theological terminology, will make the reading easier. But Rice has the gift of explaining complex things in such a way that they become accessible also for those who are not professional theologians.

I finish with some personal observations. As someone with a European background I would have liked to see more interaction with the (admittedly few) contemporary European theologians who have shown an interest in the ideas of Open Theism. The only references are in three consecutive footnotes in the Conclusion (235). And I would also have liked to hear more about Arminian theologians (both in and outside the United States) in the “main-line” Protestant denominations, who are “open” to Open Theism, and about any interest in Open Theism in Roman Catholic circles.

Although in several instances Rice indicates that there are similarities as well as important differences between Process Theology and Open Theism, I would have found it very helpful if he had included somewhere a few paragraphs with a clear overview of these similarities and dissimilarities.

I realize that this book was not specifically written for an Adventist audience. And to my knowledge little in-depth discussion has so far taken place among Adventist theologians about the basic ideas of Open Theism. One Adventist theologian who did respond to these ideas (and largely disagreed with them) is Norman R. Gulley in the second volume of his Systematic Theology (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2011, pp. 231-272). Hopefully more discussion will follow.

I look forward to a publication in which Rice will explore the impact of his Open Theism on some specific Adventist views regarding the nature of prophecy in general and apocalyptic prophecy in particular. Could the traditional Adventist end-time scenario turn out very differently, if the main players were to make decisions that have not been foreseen?

Finally, this book has been an important eye-opener for me. It encourages me to do much more reading in the various areas that Open Theism emphasizes. I recognize I am presently left with many unanswered questions, but I find the God of Open Theism who emerges from this book a much more attractive God than the God of most versions of Protestant Christianity that I am acquainted with.

 

Notes & References:

1. https://www.ivpress.com/the-future-of-open-theism

 


The Future of Open Theism is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle, or directly from the publisher.


 

Reinder Bruinsma is a native of the Netherlands who retired in 2007 after a long career in pastoral, editorial, teaching, and church leadership assignments in Europe, the United States, and West Africa. After receiving a Bachelor’s degree from Newbold College and a Master’s degree from Andrews University, he earned a Bachelor of Divinity with honors and a doctorate in church history from the University of London. He recently interrupted his retirement to serve as the president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Belgium and Luxemburg. He has authored more than twenty books, in Dutch and English, and a large number of articles. He has also translated various theological books from Dutch into English.

Book cover image courtesy of IVP Academic.

 

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