Richard Rice and the Question of God – Part I

Richard Rice and the Question of God – Part I

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Published:
October 8, 2020

The Question of God is important for every believer because it’s decisive for determining the profile and nature of his/her own religious experience. But a singular religious experience is not transcendent for a whole community and even less for a historical period. So why then might it be important to consider Richard Rice’s understanding of God? Certainly, not as a personal experience, but as a theologian’s reflection, and particularly as an Adventist Theologian’s reflection, on God. The question of God should be the first question any Christian community addresses but in fact it usually becomes the last one. Rice’s significant contribution, since the very beginning of his theological endeavor, has been in addressing this primary theological issue.

As much as Adventists presumably study the Bible, we usually think that the question of God is settled forever. We confuse and overlap our understanding of God with God himself. Between these two realities there are coincidences but also big differences. God himself is holy while our confessional understanding of him is noble, respectful and eventually helpful. But certainly not holy and even less definitive. So, we discover (at least) two problems: 1) hermeneutical, and 2) theological. One concerns the Bible, the other concerns God. While there are some initiatives within Adventist theological circles to address the “hermeneutical problem”, the “theological problem” seems to simply exist in a chronic vacuum. We tend to think that both God and the Bible are, well, Adventist. We believe that for God, it’s enough to respect and love him. But it’s precisely in trying to understand what love means that theological problems emerge. The main one involves substituting what God is in himself with the God depicted by the intensity of our own commitment, love and devotion. And one reason for arriving at this situation has to do with our strong “missionary” and “last-days-events” ethos. In fact, in order to correctly enforce the mission and prepare for the last-days, we need to have a clear idea of God. We can’t allow ourselves to be uncertain, provisional and too experimental. At least this central idea needs to be settled definitely. We use the eschatological perspective 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 typical technical biblical confirmation of our idea of God, very much influenced and monopolized by our exegetes who try to behave as theologians but are not. We end up having a theology without theology. That is, for instance, what has happened with the lately produced Adventist biblical 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 that we have reduced to a bunch of dates, prophecies and temporal schemes, reinforcing a classical 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.

Rice’s merit consists precisely in this, in reminding us that the question of God is an open one. And there are two particular current events that push us to briefly revisit Richard Rice’s reflection on the question of God. First, this month he goes into retirement and second, his latest book, published this summer: The Future of Open Theism: From Antecedents to Opportunities comes back to this same question.

Rice has given birth, together with some other theologians, to what is known today as “Open Theism”. Open Theism attracted the attention of a Christian audience some twenty-five years ago when five conservative scholars (R. Rice, C. Pinnock, J. Sanders, W. Hasker, D. Basinger) published a symposium volume under the title The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God. This publication generated an immediate divided reaction. On one side some got enthusiastic about this new approach in thinking and conceiving God, but on the other side it met with many resistances because it seemed to shake certainty out of our traditional religious experience.

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. The very same personal character of God pushes him to enter in relation with humans in both directions. In loving them but also in being loved by them. 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. God is open to the world, and the world is open to God. Both Creator and creatures contribute to the ongoing course of events, and God experiences these events as they happen. The risk for humans of pursuing their own goals rather than God’s is always there but despite what went wrong in history God never repented of interacting in this way with his creatures. The dramatic interchange, the give-and-take between God and humans that we find in the Bible, strongly suggests that God experiences events as they happen and that he seriously takes into account what his children do, and is deeply touched and influenced by their actions. From God’s perspective, therefore, past and future events are not the same. In other words, time is real for God.

According to John C. Peckham, “Classical Christian Theism” maintains a clear Creator-creature distinction and affirms God’s “timeless eternity”, and “Modified Classical Christian Theism” maintains God’s omniscience and omnipotence while asserting that God is involved in Time. But “Revised Classical theism” instead goes further and not only affirms God’s involvement in time but limits God’s knowledge by time and thus limits his power relative to the choices and actions of creatures. Open Theism belongs to this third group.

Open Theism proposes a reworking and reframing of our understanding of God as a principal theological enterprise. This is crucial because the main task of theology is that of thinking about God. There are at least two recurrent motives under which we postpone, and even overlook, the possibility of reshaping our understanding of God. First, because it’s certainly not the easiest of human endeavours. When we try to know God better, we’re immediately confronted with the complexity of cross-correlated issues involving, on one side, God and the mystery that surrounds His Being and Actions, and on the other side the insurmountable limits of human understanding. Second, because we often conclude that complication in our spiritual journey can’t be attributed to God or the image we have of Him, it must instead be linked to our human limitations.  

The logical conclusion then, of all this reasoning, is that we humans are certainly the problem, not God. Consequently the “Anthropology of God”, not “Theology of God”, needs to be assessed, corrected and refined. Concerning God, it’s supposedly true that all is settled forever – particularly if we think our ideas on Him are based in the Bible. And precisely because he is a Bible-based God, then once we get him “right”, that understanding will always be right. But in this rapid and superficial conclusion there are two hidden, flawed presuppositions. First, the pretension to have correctly understood the whole Bible. Second, the firm conviction that the Bible tells us everything about God. On one hand we put ourselves above the Bible and on the other hand we place the Bible above God himself. These are two typical protestant impairments and risks. For this reason, today’s Protestant “Pragmatic-Reductive Bibliocentrism” and its implicit correlate “Religious-Efficient Anthropocentrism”, are two primary mechanisms which often prevent Adventists from updating the understanding and image we have of God.

I’ll briefly mention three main contributions Rice makes to Adventism: a biblical, a theological and a cultural one.  

First, Open Theism better describes what the Bible suggests is the type of relation that exists between God and humanity. In the biblical motif of the “covenant” we find this personal interaction where God is actor of his own free actions but also the loving receptor of human free initiatives.

Second, Open Theism assumes that the main theological task is that of thinking about God. In a more general sense, everything concerning the meaning and goal of humanity, the church and the religious experience is theology. But in a more precise way there is theology only when we specifically tackle the question of God.

Third, Open Theism perceives, and implicitly legitimates, a cultural change which has occurred in our contemporary societies. That of seriously taking into account the historicity, changeability and dynamicity of human experience. And Open Theism implicitly applies this constructivist approach to our contemporary world, and to God himself.

But at the same time Rice’s approach evidences three main limits: a biblical, theological and cultural unilateralism.

First, because the Bible itself is not a monolithic description of what God is. Rice fails in describing and validating these diversified theologies of God in the Bible. The pre-exilic, post-exilic or gentile pictures of God are not always complementary, but rather live and coexist in an unsolvable tension. Open Theism is only one possible biblical understanding of God. Not the unique and not necessarily the best.

Second, because every theological proposal is never culturally neutral. Neither is that of Open Theism. It is fashioned by the typical modern understanding which facilitated the transition from an understanding of God as “supreme substance”, typical of pre-modern theologies, to an understanding of God as an “absolute subject”, typical of modern and post-modern theologies. In this sense all contemporary theologies are de facto and implicit expressions of this Open Theism trend that characterizes our time.

Third, because Rice fails in perceiving the deep cultural connection between this “open view” of God and contemporary “individualism” which in fact is an “open view” of man as individual. Rice will be, in another of his books, very critical of contemporary individualism without perceiving that such individualism has a theological endorsement in his unilateral “open view” of God.

 

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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