The Omniscience of God and the Heresy of Open-View Theism – Part 1
Introduction: In 1986 I reviewed the book Predestination And Free Will: Four Views Of Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom (InterVarsity Press). In accessing the chapter by Clark Pinnock, “God Limits His Knowledge,” I made the passing observation, “I wonder if perhaps the doctrine of God is not in the same holding pattern in the minds of some evangelicals the way the doctrine of inerrancy was a generation or so ago?[i] The February 19, 1990 issue of Christianity Today introduced us to “The Evangelical Megashift.” The lead piece advocating this new development was written by Canadian-Anglican Robert Brow. Five respected evangelicals from various backgrounds were asked to respond to Brow’s new-model evangelicalism.
D. A. Carson and David F. Wells expressed grave concern over this new-model evangelicalism, noting that the question as to whether or not evangelicalism can accommodate this new model cannot be answered without prior agreement on what evangelicalism is. (David Wells points out in his essay that what we are looking at here is not the emergence of a new model at all, but rather the dismembering of the old by the forces of modernity.) Even Clark Pinnock, who agrees in substance with Brow, correctly noted that the struggle for future control of evangelicalism will coalesce around the definition of evangelical.
Donald G. Bloesch wonders about the possibility of these two types of evangelicalism coexisting under one umbrella, while Robert E. Webber simply celebrates that he feels more evangelical under the new model than he did with the old model. (I have no idea how one goes about feeling evangelical.) The so-called evangelical megashift has turned into an avalanche, and a growing number of evangelicals are leading the way, confident that in time they will not only gain acceptance, but will ascend to the forefront of evangelicalism. Insisting on being accepted as genuine evangelicals, this group advocates a type of radical Arminianism that has more in common with sixteenth-century Socinianism than it does with John Wesley. Key to their theological identity is the belief that God is mutable and does not possess omniscience as it has been traditionally understood.[ii]
Robert Brow, who later co-authored with Clark Pinnock a full-length book developing the themes he sketched out in the evangelical megashift,[iii] could say with a note of certainty: “Many readers of Christianity Today will recognize that they have moved in some of these directions without being conscious of a mode shift. And the old model can be modified and given qualifications for a time. But once three or four of the changes have occurred, our thinking is already organized around the new model. We may still use old-model language and assume we believe as before, but our hearts are changing our minds.”[iv]
Sadly, this observation is correct. Christianity Today, strangely enough, has continued to provide the new-model evangelicals/open view theists with a platform to propagate their anti-Reformational views. In 1995 Christianity Today resident book review theologian, Roger Olson, raved about how powerful and persuasive the book edited by Clark Pinnock et al., The Openness of God, really was. Sensing that the ice he is skating on is very thin, Olson, in sonorous fashion, declares: “Have we come of age enough to avoid heresy charges and breast beating jeremiads in response to a new doctrinal proposal that is so conscientiously based on Biblical reflection rather than on rebellious accommodation to modern thought?”[v] Judged by the standards of historic Christian orthodoxy (standards which at one time governed Christianity Today as well),
The Openness of God is heretical and all of Olson’s posturing will not make it less so.[vi] In the same issue, Christianity Today included the assessment of other respected evangelical thinkers whose evaluations of the proposals set forth in The Openness of God were anything but open. Douglas F. Kelly wrote, “I was genuinely disappointed that, because of crucial, exegetical and central theological weaknesses, these brethren were unable to improve this situation. Indeed, what they have to say on this point and many others constitutes one of the saddest intellectual and spiritual retrogressions I have ever seen outside openly heterodox thinking.”[vii] Timothy George described it as a transcendence-starved Deity and concluded by saying that the contributors to this book “have devised a user-friendly God who bears an uncanny resemblance to a late-20th century seeker. They need not be so concerned about ‘God’s reputation.’ They only need to let God be God.”[viii]
Oxford theologian Alister McGrath was even more adamant in his denouncement, declaring that the book revealed an appalling lack of scholarly familiarity with the primary historical sources. “The book asks us to reject a classical evangelical understanding in favor of something else. But why should we abandon this tradition when, in fact, it has clearly not been fairly and thoroughly presented in this book? Modern evangelicalism has often been accused of a lack of familiarity with its own historical roots and traditions. Curiously, this book merely confirms that impression.”[ix] This should have put an end to Christianity Today’s flirtation with this type of evangelical Socinianism.[x] It didn’t. In the February 7, 2000 issue of Christianity Today the editorial, “God vs. God: Two Competing Theologies Vie for the Future of Evangelicalism,” openly sanctioned the openness theology as being a valid evangelical option. Classical theism was portrayed as being less biblical and more influenced by philosophy in its orientation.
Credibility was given to the claim of the openness theologians that the real culprits in this debate are Reformed thinkers like Francis Turretin, the old Princeton theologians (Alexander, the Hodges, Warfield), and the late Calvin Seminary professor Louis Berkhof (a tactic that Jack Rogers and Donald McKim used three decades earlier to render suspect the doctrine of inerrancy).[xi] Veteran evangelical theologian Roger Nicole responded with appropriate indignation in a letter to the editor: “As a corresponding editor of CT I am constrained to express strong dissent to your editorial “God vs. God” [Feb. 7].
While it contains certain good arguments in favor of the quasi-universal Judeo-Christian endorsement of God’s immutability, it appears to attempt to leave a door ajar for the propriety of the “openness of God” position. Surely the doctrine of God’s unchangeableness is not a provincial approach developed by Turretin, the Princeton theologians and Louis Berkhof! Athanasius, Augustine, the council of Chalcedon, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Cranmer, the Synod of Dort, the Westminster Assembly, John and Charles Wesley, to name but a few, would object just as strongly as Turretin and company to a changeable God! This very notion undermines the validity of God’s prophecies, promises, and commandments. It cancels out the effectiveness of prayer, since even if God had been persuaded by my petition, he could shift again before the fulfillment; and it borders on process theology, denying the fixity of the one being who is unmovable in the vast flux of created existence. Nothing good along this line can be expected for evangelicalism. It is unfortunate if the holders of the heretical view of the “openness of God” could now boast about the “openness of Christianity Today.”[xii]
The proposals of the new-model evangelicals/open view theists make it clear that what is at stake here is not simply a minor adjustment in how we understand God’s omniscience but a completely different theology that redefines not only the terms but the actual content of such themes as sin, wrath, judgment, atonement, faith, church, and Son of God. For example, hell, according to Brow, is not a place of future punishment and the wrath of God is nothing more than bad consequences that are experienced here and now. It is something like parental loving encouragement or rebuke—but it is certainly not a manifestation of God’s holy anger against sin. And the cross? Since wrath is not really wrath, then the cross cannot be seen as a penal substitutionary sacrifice—but simply the visible expression in a space-time body of Christ’s eternal nature as Son. This is a necessary consequence of having redefined sin, judgment, wrath, and especially the attributes of God (i.e. omniscience). The kind of evangelicalism proposed by Open-view theists dispenses with God’s omniscience, holiness, justice, wrath and sovereignty, not because it wishes to deny these biblical teachings per se (although in some cases it is an out-and-out denial of these doctrines), but because it has accommodated itself to the spirit of the age.
In this new-model evangelicalism, God’s primary attribute is a banal benevolence. Where did this new-model evangelicalism derive this concept of God (a concept that is completely foreign to that which evangelicals have held for centuries)? It is, as stated, a product of cultural accommodation.[xiii] This is the kind of God that the world will gladly tolerate.[xiv] “Theology becomes self-destructive,” said John Leith, “when its primary goal is accommodation.”[xv] In his last book, Francis Schaeffer warned us about this when he said, “Here is the great evangelical disaster—the failure of the evangelical world to stand for truth as truth. There is only one word for this—namely accommodation: the evangelical Church has accommodated to the world spirit of the age.”[xvi] Schaeffer wrote these words in 1984. Over the past sixteen years this accommodation has accelerated at a rate that is simply astounding. (To be continued.)
[i] Westminster Theological Journal 48, no. 2 (1986), p. 396.
[ii] Greg Boyd, in his recent defense of open view theism, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Baker, 2000), is adamant in his insistence that the open view theists affirm God’s omniscience as emphatically as anybody does (ibid., 16). Boyd, however, is engaged in more than a little question begging on this point, since he says over and over, again and again throughout this book, that there are certain things that God does not know. He does not possess exhaustive foreknowledge of the future (i.e., having all knowledge and being all- knowing). This is denial of omniscience.
[iii] Clark Pinnock and Robert Brow, Unbounded Love: A Good News Theology for the 21st Century (InterVarsity, 1994).
[iv] Robert Brow, “Evangelical Megashift: Why You May Not Have Heard About Wrath, Sin and Hell Recently,” Christianity Today, February 19, 1990.
[v] Christianity Today, January 9, 1995, 30. Olson’s glowing remarks about this radical form of Arminianism makes one wonder about the nature of the Arminianism he is defending in his article, “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Arminian,” Christianity Today, September 6, 1999, 87. He says he is a “classical” Arminian, and “everyone labeled an Arminian is not a classical Arminian” (93). Does he consider the advocates of The Openness of God to be classical Arminians? Olson’s sympathies in the debate are clearly with the Open-view theists. In fact he recently declared that one of the great threats to the future of evangelicalism is not open-view theism but a “resurgent Augustinian-Calvinism”! The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform (IVP, 1999), p. 612.
[vi] Noted Methodist theologian Thomas Oden categorically called this out-and-out heresy. See his article, “the Real Reformation and the Traditionalists,” Christianity Today, February 9, 1998, p. 46.
[vii] Christianity Today, January 9, 1995, p. 32.
[x] Many of you may never have heard of the Socinians. They were a small splinter group that arose shortly after the Reformation. Socinian churches were especially influential in Poland for a time; later the Socinian movement spread to England, where it was soon absorbed into Deism and disappeared as a separate movement. Socinianism is usually remembered for (1) its denial of the deity of Christ and (2) its denial of the need for a substitutionary atonement and for justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ. Socinianism, therefore, was considered a heresy regarding the person and the work of Christ. But Socinianism also held to a heretical doctrine of God. The Socinian doctrine can be stated very briefly, and it must be contrasted with both Calvinism and Arminianism. Calvinism (or Augustinianism) teaches that the sovereign God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass, and therefore He foreknows whatsoever comes to pass. Arminianism denies that God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass but wishes nevertheless to affirm God’s foreknowledge of whatsoever comes to pass. Against the Arminians, the Socinians insisted that logically the Calvinists were quite correct in insisting that the only real basis for believing that God knows what you are going to do next is to believe that he has foreordained what you are going to do next. How else could God know ahead of time what your decision will be? Like the Arminians, however, the Socinians insisted that it was a contradiction of human freedom to believe in the sovereign foreordination of God. So they went “all the way” (logically) and denied not only that God has foreordained the free decisions of free agents but also that God foreknows what those decisions will be. That is precisely the teaching of the “free-will theism” of Pinnock, Rice, and other like-minded “new model evangelicals.” They want their doctrine of God to sound very “new,” very modern, by dressing it up with references to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in physics and to the insights of process theology (although they reject process theology as a whole because it “tends to stray from any biblical moorings and . . .returns us to Hellenism, where the world is not created but is eternally dependent on God”). But it is just the old Socinian heresy rejected by the church centuries ago. Cf. Robert Strimple, “What Does God Know?” in The Coming Evangelical Crisis ed. J. Armstrong (Moody, 1996), p. 140.
[xi] Jack Rogers and Donald McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach (Harper & Row, 1979). Rogers no longer claims to be an evangelical. He recently endorsed same-sex marriages in his bid to become the next moderator of the PCUSA. Cf. The Presbyterian Layman (Vol. 34, No. 1, Jan./Feb. 2001), p. 10.
[xii] Christianity Today April 3, 2000, p. 33.
[xiii] Greg Boyd (God of the Possible), acknowledges this and even celebrates it: “There is no reason for theology to resist the paradigmatic shift occurring in our culture. On the contrary, there are actually good grounds for embracing and celebrating much of it. This shift has to some extent freed us to recognize just how dependent our theology had been on pagan philosophical thought and thus to rediscover the marvelously open and dynamic dimension of God proclaimed in the Word that classical theology had previously minimized.” p. 107.
[xiv] As usual, Gene Edward Veith (World, March 25, 2000, 13) writes with his finger on the pulse: “Today our culture has a new openness to the supernatural to “spirituality”. God may well come back in to vogue, as long as He is egalitarian and tolerant, not “judgmental” against sin but rather nice, making no exclusive truth-claims and not demanding too much of us. All that infinite stuff, all that unimaginable talk of a Trinity, the notion that God became incarnate in Jesus Christ—that will have to go. But a generic Deity will be OK. That is exactly the kind of god that the Bible does not allow us to believe in.”
[xv] John Leith, Crisis in the Church (Knox, 1996), p. 41.
[xvi] Francis Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster (Crossway, 1984), p. 37.
Christians are not to alter the doctrines of God; they will never improve upon them, but they must and do adorn them with their holy lives and godly conduct. That is “practical godliness.” In this scarse treatise, Alsop laments that the harmony of the Christian religion “has been disordered, its beauty blemished, and much filth thrown in its face.” Appendixed is a rare sermon showing his wit and ability to apply Scripture entitled, “The Sinfulness of Strange Apparel.” This is a biblical theology of clothing and fashions which is so relevent for Christians in our time.