In my two previous columns (here and here) I pointed out that Richard Rice’s latest book The Future of Open Theism: From Antecedents to Opportunities, reminds us that our understanding of God is pivotal for determining the way we live, more than we usually believe. Our theological premises concerning God, in an implicit and structural way (i.e. unconsciously), model and drastically determine what we are and do. But between our theological premises and our concrete life there is not simply a one-way street. There exists a dynamic reciprocity. Starting from the opposite perspective we could also affirm that our way of life progressively models and implicitly transforms both our awareness and theological premises. Theological premises are not so monolithic, autonomous and static as we usually believe they are. For this reason we need, on one side, to pay attention to how we apply our beliefs and make sure that what we believe materializes concretely in behaviors and actions. But on the other side, and for the same reason, we need to filter and assess the effects that practice has on our theological premises. This is what was described in a previous column as “Bottom Up,” which affects how our practice feeds back into theological premises. It’s a mechanism we need continually to keep in mind. But we must also realize that the parallel and more explicit “Top Down” approach affects every theological model as well, and then alters religious practices.
But pressure on our theological premises doesn’t come uniquely from religious practice. It comes from our specific doctrines and concrete theological declarations too. So we need to assess the kind of pressure our confessional doctrines exert on our idea of God, the main theological premise of any religious system. We can’t pretend that our confessional idea of God is God himself. And to check that we need to continually assess this reciprocity, verifying both the influence coming from our theological premises to our confessional doctrines, and also the effects of our confessional doctrines upon our theological premises of God. And here the analysis is instructive – not of the contents (the doctrines) but the trend of our eschatology. Our eschatology is dynamic but not necessarily consistent and balanced. We have a strong “missionary” and “last-days-events” focus. They have become two obsessions that easily make our best theology unilateral. Not only in the sense of making it partial though efficient, but above all in the sense of tightening it up and, by doing so, taking away its natural internal dynamism.
Thus, in order to correctly enforce the “mission” and prepare ourselves for “last-days-events” (our two privileged eschatological categories), we need to have a clear idea of God. We can’t allow ourselves to be uncertain, provisional or too experimental. We use the eschatological perspective then to close and validate a classical view of God instead of taking advantage of this frame to renew our understanding of him. Ours is a technical biblical confirmation of our idea of God, very much influenced and monopolized by our exegetes who try to behave as theologians while they are not such in this specific sense. We end up having a theology without theology. A theological eschatology without a renewed idea of God. That is, for instance, what happened with recent Adventist commentaries on Daniel and Revelation. Even when these commentaries are partially innovative they don’t help us to reconfigure our understanding of God. So we have become a fervent church of last-days-events without a real theology, without a propulsive understanding of God. Daniel and Revelation are deep theological books for building-up a renewed understanding of God. Instead we have reduced them to a bunch of dates, prophecies and temporal schemes – reinforcing a purist, exclusive and restrictive understanding of God. In reality these two books are tremendous theological experiments to rethink, enlarge, reshape and rearticulate a dynamic and life-oriented understanding of God. Not an ecclesio-centric and restrictive one.
The question remains whether Rice’s Open Theism allows and fosters a true renewing of our Adventist idea of God, starting from our eschatology agenda, or does his view instead tend to leave our eschatology as it fundamentally is. Rice does succeed in going from the main Idea of God as expressed in Open Theism, to positively influence the eschatological agenda, giving it an important dynamism. But the opposite movement, from eschatology to renewing our idea of God, is almost absent. The centrifugal-applicative direction in his theology is privileged above the centripetal-corrective one. So much so that his Open Theist understanding of God is dynamic in some aspects but stuck in others.
So let’s consider these two theological movements.
1. The centrifugal-applicative theological movement
Essentially Rice’s Open Theism proposes three main ideas for dynamizing our eschatology.
a. The primacy of “divine love”
The main affirmation of Open Theism is that God’s essential nature is love. It’s by love that God created humanity, endowing us with the capacity of loving him in return. And this very same personal character of God pushes him to enter into relationship with humans – in both directions. So God is genuinely affected by human actions and decisions. He is not only subject and protagonist in world history but also receptor of human initiatives. For this reason love will continue at the end to be the main parameter by which God concludes the history of this world. The final eschatological manifestation of God is not based then on power but on reciprocal love. Just as history has been guided by God’s love, the final events will be directed by that same love.
b. The centrality of “libertarian freedom”
God’s purposes don’t exclude human voluntary participation. He is open to the world, and the world is open to God. This central mechanism of reciprocity intervenes at the end, eschatologically. God’s final purpose then can’t be accomplished by a divine fiat but involves the voluntary participation of God’s people. This implies risk, but the idea that God takes risk doesn’t mean God is careless. Humanity will not be a passive observer of what God does at the end. Humanity’s voice, attitudes, emotions and reactions will influence God in his final eschatological decisions and actions.
c. The “temporal nature” of reality
While recognizing the important contributions of Bultmann, Cullmann or Pannenberg to eschatology today, Rice criticizes them, particularly Pannenberg, for swallowing up time into eternity. He underlines Pannenberg’s contribution in reminding us that history becomes a totality only when it ends, so the future becomes essential to give meaning to everything that has existed before. But he also expresses disappointment with that conclusion because it makes all the moments in history simultaneous. The End becomes a “timeless moment” that dissolves time into eternity. For Open Theism time and eternity are not opposed, but are perfectly compatible, though in tension. This vision gives eschatology a particular dynamism all the way through.
2. The centripetal-corrective theological movement
The above three ideas elaborated by Open Theism certainly give dynamism to our eschatology, but do they really renew our understanding of God? Consider now three brief criticisms of what Rice tends to overlook by paying too much attention to openness and dynamism as main characteristics of Christian eschatology.
a. The apocalyptic-messianic tension
More than by dynamism, biblical eschatology is characterized by the tension between “Apocalyptic” as an eschatology based on “judgement,” and “Messianism” as an eschatology based on “Fullness.” A balanced eschatology is that which maintains both. For instance, Isaiah 2 combines an “apocalyptic metaphor” and, immediately linked with it in a permanent structural tension, a “messianic metaphor.” Where both forms of eschatology exist and are linked together, propulsive movement forward to the future yields to slowness and complexity in the experience of time and of God himself. God is Judge and Fulfiller, Demander and Expander, Mover and Moved, Dynamic and Still. This structural tension in God himself, as a non-monolithic being, is underscored by this important eschatological tension.
b. Inclusive universalism
Adventism’s strong apocalypticism pushes us to have a very tight understanding of what a believer is. Every believer, as much as every new convert, must be an open “militant” of the kingdom. Someone who lives an intense and radical faith experience beyond doubt and questions. This religious earnestness becomes the only valid sign of true fellowship. We hardly consider the intensity and seriousness of other human experiences as being sufficient enough to allow people to be included in God’s Kingdom. But this understanding and conviction is not tenable – either by biblical perspective or common sense. End-time mission is important but certainly should not be anxiety or stress-inducing. In the Bible we find differentiated profiles of people who called themselves God’s followers. Elijah was certainly more radical and militant than Elisha. And Nazirites like Samson were more ascetic and involved than the common Israelites. But these common Israelites were also God’s children who were able to enter actively into God’s covenant by practicing a less radical, albeit fully engaged, religious experience. And this inclusive universalism of the Kingdom is based on God’s heterogenous being. He is not only Savior, but also Creator and Father of all humans and Fulfiller of every human soul. He is the hidden desired aspiration of every human being.
c. A kenotic church
The crushing of our eschatology on the “rock” of Apocalypticism leads us to implicitly identify Adventism with God’s kingdom. This assimilation is biblically unwarranted, theologically unjustified and pushes us to a missiological disproportion. The result is that mission becomes an attempt to make everybody Adventist. If not physically, because that’s impossible, at least theologically. This, because of an understanding that only those who “think Adventist” can enter God’s Kingdom. Consequently we end up preaching, not God’s kingdom, but Adventism. And assigning ourselves an unbearable burden that no church could really stand. Adventist mission is very important but it’s only one part of God’s global mission for bringing his Kingdom down to us. There are other missions, religious and secular, that contribute to advance God’s kingdom and we need to acknowledge, respect and appreciate them if we want to avoid unnecessary stress and destructive obsessions. The Adventist church, like any other church, is only part of God’s Kingdom. And for this reason God’s Kingdom, more than being dynamic, is characterized by being inclusive.
Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.
Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/hanz-gutierrez
Image Credit: Roy Branson Legacy Sabbath School
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