By David Larson
More than twenty years following the publication of his book “The Openness of God,” which named and launched a new school of Christian thought, Richard Rice profiled its primary themes for several dozen bright and lively university students. They were the guests on Sabbath Eve, November 9, of Julius and Iris Nam, and their sons Sherwin and Ansel, in Loma Linda, California. Trisha Famisaran moderated the discussion. Perhaps because of my interest in process theology, I was also invited to participate. Iris and a few others prepared the meal that was eagerly enjoyed by all!
Richard, Julius and I teach in the Loma Linda University School of Religion, respectively in the specialties of theology, history and ethics. Trisha, a graduate of La Sierra University and the Claremont School of Theology, is now studying for her doctorate at Claremont Graduate University. Iris is a student at the Loma Linda University School of Dentistry.
Richard traced the development of “Open Theism” by beginning with the thought of John Calvin (1509-1564) who held that (1) God determines everything that happens right down to the smallest detail and that (2) God knows the past, present and future as though they are a single moment. This was a first step. He identified a second step in the thought of James [Jacobus] Arminius (1560-1609), John Wesley (1703-1791), Ellen G. White (1827-1915) and others. Christians such as these split Calvin’s twin convictions, affirming one but not the other. They held that God knows the past, present and future with equal completeness but that God does not determine everything that occurs because God gives human beings genuine freedom.
“Open Theism” goes beyond this in a third step, Richard explained. It holds that Scripture, logic and experience urge us to reconsider both of the two convictions from Calvin with which we began, contending instead that God neither predetermines every thing that happens nor foreknows all that will occur. I pointed out that, although it may seem new to some, in less detailed forms the basics of “Open Theism” have been taught at Loma Linda University for about fifty years, beginning at least as early as long-time professor Jack W. Provonsha.
Richard explained that today the “Openness of God” movement makes a path about half way between traditional theism, on the one hand, and contemporary process theology, on the other. With process theology, it holds that human beings have enough freedom partly to determine the future. With traditional theism, it holds that human freedom is not inherent; rather, like the whole of creation, it is a gift from God.
He emphasized that “Open Theism” makes God’s love, rather than God’s power, glory or sovereignty the primary and conceptually controlling theme. It holds that, as Jesus taught, God relates to us more like a good parent than an overpowering king or queen.
From this point of view, the Christian moral life is not primarily a matter of submitting to God’s commands. It is the joy of responsively and responsibly interacting with God in bringing about in each situation as much flourishing as possible. I contrasted “the ethics of prohibition” and “the ethics of imagination,” the latter being what “Open Theism” champions.
Richard made it clear that according to “Open Theism” God knows everything there is to know. But there are some things that God does not know because they have not yet come into being and, given the reality of human freedom, they may or may not eventually occur. These things are not yet “there” for God or anyone else to know.
This is a very important point. It means that those who wish to criticize “Open Theism” should not accuse it of “limiting God” because such arrows miss the target. They should aim at its understanding of human freedom instead.
If it is inherently possible for genuinely free decisions to be predicted with 100% accuracy, then God certainly knows what they will be. But “Open Theism” contends that to understand freedom this way is to rob it of its true meaning. What we mean by “freedom” is therefore the crux of the issue.
Some people flatly reject the idea that our choices actually do alter the flow of events somewhat, holding that all such impressions are illusory. Others who agree that our choices can make this kind of difference do not see why they are inherently incapable of being foretold. “Open Theism” disagrees with the first of these positions. It holds that the second fails to discern the full implications of what it believes about human freedom.
The questions and comments from the university students were pertinent and probing. One suggested that the language of paradox and the practice of serving the needy might be more helpful ways of dealing with the topics of our discussion. Others probed the implications of “Open Theism” for prophesy, intercessory prayer, miracles, divine judgment, specific Biblical narratives like the story of Joseph and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. In every case Richard emphasized God’s unending and unlimited love and the privilege we have of cooperating.
Because more than one questioner brought it up, both Richard and I commented on the relationship between “Open Theism” and Adventism’s understandings of the “investigative” and “final” judgments. We emphasized that SDAs do not believe that God judges people now for what God foresees they will do in the future. Neither do we teach that at some point in the future God will unilaterally render a negative verdict on those who might have subsequently responded positively to God’s influence in their lives.
I especially appreciated Richard’s reminder that, linguistically speaking, as evidenced in the New Revised Standard Version of Scripture, one can translate Romans 8:28 in at least three ways. The most familiar alternative is “all things work together for good, for those who love God.” A second legitimate option is “God makes all things work together for good.” The third is “in all things God works for good.” Given its overall understanding of God and humanity, “Open Theism” opts for the third alternative.
This discussion of “Open Theism” was one of monthly conversations that the Nams host for university students in the Loma Linda area.
By David Larson
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I had a dream last night, a dream of General Conference Sessions past and future. I stood in the center of a stadium, packed with people, all captivated by the music and stagecraft in front of them. I looked around and felt a sadness that kept growing inside of me until it was overwhelming.
Some time ago I was sitting in what quite possibly was the most boring church service I have ever been in. (No, I won’t tell you where I was.) There couldn’t have been more than 50 people in the sanctuary, and I’m being generous. We sang no less than 5 hymns. All hymns were sung in a dry, slow manner. The sermon seemed uninspired, barely prepared, and was presented with no sense of conviction. It felt like we were in church for three hours. We were in church for about 70 minutes.