Open Theism: God’s along for the Ride

When I started this series of essays I indicated that there were five somewhat distinct schools of thought regarding divine predestination, election and foreknowledge. The first three I outlined (Calvinism, Arminianism and Universalism) are considered mainstream while the fourth reflects an extremely conservative sector of Calvinism that houses the Supralapsarian, Infralapsarian and Amyraldianism camps. The fifth view, Open Theism, lies at the opposite end of the spectrum and champions the most liberal of stances on these controversial subjects. In a nutshell, they believe that, because God and His created human beings are free, God’s knowledge of future events is dynamic and, therefore, His providence is flexible. While this may seem like something modern scholars have concocted, its roots can actually be traced back to Calcidius, a 4th century interpreter of Plato whose work influenced many in the early church. Socinus in the 16th century and Samuel Fancourt in the 18th are also credited with being instrumental in making it more popular in the Christian community. The term Open Theism, however, wasn’t associated with the movement until 1980 when Richard Rice’s book, “The Openness of God: The Relationship of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will,” gave it a title. His insinuations instigated serious ripples throughout the religious world. Since then a growing number of students of the Scriptures have been affected by this radical doctrine and many have fully absorbed its principles into their own belief system.

Most of its practitioners feel that the Gospel can only be considered good news if the poor in spirit are comforted and encouraged by the message that anyone, no matter how awful or disgusting their sins are, can be saved merely by believing in Jesus as their Lord and Savior. They accept that divine election does exist but that it’s not about a few lucky sinners being selected arbitrarily for salvation and the rest being consigned to hellfire forevermore. Rather, they opine that God’s ultimate goal is the salvation of all nations and that He relies on an elect congregation of people to assist Him in realizing that goal. They infer that how a believer handles the issue of divine election says volumes about their vision of Christianity as a whole. They believe that the reason predestination isn’t preached from the pulpits very often these days is because the traditional version of the matter contains so little of the true Gospel message. Of course they, like the subscribers to the other four views, are positive they’ve deciphered the debate-spawning verses of the Bible correctly so, to be fair, the Open Theism group deserves as much respect as any other. In general, their theory is this – divine election is best understood when we consider it to be fundamentally corporate and vocational. That it’s about a people and their God-given missionary task. They cite 1 Peter 2:9 to back their claim: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” The word corporate means “to make into a body” and that’s what they deem the term “chosen race” to represent. Vocation is defined as “a call or impulsion to enter a certain career” and they feel that the phrase “so that you may proclaim” solidifies indisputably the accuracy of their interpretation. Simply put, they say that the “elect” connotes the body of Christ and their task is to spread the Gospel.

Open Theism advocates that viewing election to be corporate/vocational takes the unmerited worry out of being a Christian because it eliminates the fear generated by not being sure if you truly belong to God or if you might be one of His predestined outcasts. If election is not an end unto itself but a foreshadowing of the reconciliation of the entire world then it presents a joyful rather than an ominous prospect. It makes election an inclusive, not exclusive, doctrine. Clark Pinnock wrote, “…Believers are chosen in Christ and caught up in God’s offer of salvation as a people who have the whole of humanity in view. The election of the community is part of God’s comprehensive will to save humankind. It is not aimed at a few souls and them alone but at humankind as a whole.” Open Theists suggest that God’s plan of redemption began modestly with one man, Abraham, but the Lord intended the blessing He bestowed to be for all nations. Genesis 12:3 reads; “…and all the families of the earth will bless one another by your name.” Their stated opinion is that the central teaching of the New Testament is this – the blessing God spoke of culminates in Jesus Christ and the church that represents Him in this fallen world.

Some critics say that this “New Age” position is more a result of wishful thinking than of serious scholastics. Open Theists don’t concur. They say that theology is an unfinished business and a human construction even when it’s based upon divine revelation. They take the Apostle Paul at his word in 1Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known.” In other words, Augustine, Origen, Arminius, Calvin, Wesley and their contemporaries meant well but they weren’t privy to all the answers any more than Paul was. Open Theists reject the notion that God is the author of evil as well as being the cause of an individual’s damnation. They express that Augustine came up with the idea of unconditional election on his own and many church leaders went along with the tradition he started without question despite the fact that the organized church, at the Synod of Orange in 529, ratified a more moderate position regarding predestination. Even Karl Barth, considered one of the greatest Calvinist theologians, found unconditional election to be a denial of God’s universal salvific will and overwhelming love for His children. In 1957 he wrote, “I would have preferred to follow Calvin’s doctrine of predestination much more closely, instead of departing from it so radically. I would have preferred, too, to keep to the beaten tracks when considering the basis of ethics. But I could not and cannot do so. As I let the Bible speak to me on these matters, as I meditated on what I seemed to hear, I was driven irresistibly to reconstruction.” He even quoted John Milton as saying: “I may go to hell but such a God will never command my respect.”

The concept of election being corporate instead of individualized is best understood by remembering that God selected the nation of Israel, not one person, to represent Him to the rest of the ancient world. Open Theism points out that the patriarchs were obviously not chosen for their goodness (the rascal Jacob comes to mind) but for their ability to mold Israel into the means by which God would reconcile the world to Him. With Abraham God established a special covenantal relationship that contained earth-shaking potential. God committed to uphold His end of a sacred covenant he made with an unremarkable tribe of human beings that, frankly, He had doubts about (concerning their ability to behave themselves) from the get go. Therefore Open Theists surmise that Israel was God’s “experimental collective” where various things were tried out for the benefit of all mankind. Yet the long-range outcome was never in question. When Jesus set up the new covenant His church became the “chosen people” through which God is now aiming to establish a new and more effective human community. And, because of Christ’s incarnation as the Son of Man, belief in Him is the only condition one must meet to be included. When a person surrenders their life to Jesus he or she is incorporated into the body of Christ and all that has been predestined for the group now applies to that person as well.

They also reiterate that God’s only begotten Son is the only individual predestined to be the Savior of the world. To provide salvation for the inhabitants of this planet was always Christ’s calling and election and no other person has ever received that commission. Other than that, much about the future is unknown. Open Theists believe that God has decided that certain things will occur with the defining moment of history (the death and resurrection of Jesus) being one of those things. However, the actions of the humans surrounding that event were not necessarily preordained. In the case of Christ’s repulsive betrayal and tortured murder we’re able to observe what a “predestined event with non-predestined players involved” looks like. God also knew that basic human nature guaranteed the failure of Israel so Christ’s sacrifice was an inevitable, preordained finale to that nation’s role as the portrayer of God’s essential characteristics. Now the church (Jesus’ “bride”) has been given that task. Sanctification is no longer limited to Jews. The gates of heaven have been flung open. The veil has been torn asunder. No soul is damned except by their own hand. Universal opportunity, yes; universal salvation, not likely. Pinnock said, “God’s love appeals to human freedom; it does not swallow it up.” To those who never cease to thumb their noses at God’s generosity He gives them what they want most – the freedom to be selfish, enslaved forever by the autonomy they’ve demanded since birth.

Those who subscribe to this doctrine postulate that so many find unconditional election to be plausible (regardless of its dubious implications) because the biblical notion of corporate solidarity is so foreign to the modern structure of society. Those in Biblical times considered the community to be more significant than the individual because that mindset was vital to survival. But over the ensuing years belonging to something bigger than oneself has faded to the point where 21st century folks, even many Christians, tend to picture themselves as the main focus of their existence. But God wants the church to be each believer’s number one priority because that’s where the “elect” can be most effective at doing the job of saving souls. Charismatic evangelists are great but they’ll never be as powerful as the satisfaction and fulfillment the lost will find in the warm fellowship of Christ’s church. Paul, in Ephesians 1:4, expressed that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we may be holy and unblemished in his sight in love” with the implicit purpose, as he added in verse 10, to orchestrate “the administration of the fullness of the times, to head up all things in Christ – the things in heaven and the things on earth.” One can’t overlook the broad scope involved.

Therefore Paul’s exposition on predestination, election and foreknowledge (spelled out explicitly in Romans 9-11) is a tremendously important block of teaching – but not for the reasons Calvinists attach to it. Open Theism says that in those chapters Paul is speaking about God’s purpose in His election of Israel and that his remarks concern God working in world history to show mercy to both Jew and Gentile. It’s not about the selection of individuals per se. In 2 Timothy 1:9 Paul says that God “…is the one who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not based on our works but on his own purpose and grace, granted to us in Christ Jesus before time began.” The Apostle was implying that God’s call to salvation does not result from our actions but from God’s own loving heart according to a plan He set into motion before history started. Prior to the creation of the universe God elected Jesus Christ and all of us who abide in Him as His elect people. As professed Christians we are the mechanism by which our brothers and sisters all over the planet are introduced to Jesus and God’s Holy Word. They then make the decision to believe or not. God has never decreed that they have no choice but to reject the Gospel. They doom themselves because of their stubborn pride and/or rebelliousness, not because they’re programmed to be disobedient. To think that way is to entertain that God, the Father of our Lord Jesus, has appointed certain people not to believe in His glorious majesty. To the Open Theist that’s absurd. God calls everyone to Him but it’s up to the individual whether or not they want to be among the elect. If a person grows to be unreachable it’s because continual rejection of the truth will only incur God’s hardening to the extent that faith becomes virtually impossible. Yet they bear the blame, not their Father in heaven.

Open Theism likes to bring up something in Calvin’s own writings whereupon he seems to question his own theory of predestination. While he was attempting to address what he called five “unjust accusations” on his views, the fact he mentions them at all makes one surmise that he was troubled by their implications. First, he wondered if unconditional election didn’t make God a tyrant. Second, that it may remove guilt and responsibility from man. Third, that it might suggest God shows partiality. Fourth, that it could destroy a person’s zeal to live a righteous life and, fifth, it would render the Bible’s admonitions meaningless. Open Theists suggests that Calvin was perhaps suffering from a guilty conscience because they feel that his ultimate conclusions are at odds with what the Scriptures reveal in verses like 1 Timothy 2:4 ([God] “desires everyone to be saved”) and 4:10 (“We have our hopes set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.”), Titus 2:11 (“The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”) and 2 Peter 3:9 in particular ([God doesn’t desire] “any to perish.”). They accuse Calvinists of failing to do justice to the plain-as-day teachings found in the Bible, in which God’s will for the salvation of all mankind is clearly expressed. As Howard Marshal wrote, “We must be content simply to register our feeling of certainty that this [unconditional election] is a false interpretation of the New Testament.”

Open Theists opine that what’s at stake is the loving character of God and that theological scholars inherently find it difficult to think of the Father along the lines of a personal, loving and relational deity. When one concentrates solely on abstract categories one is less able to make the love of God primary and they start imagining Him as a biased, fickle prima donna in the sky. If you approach knowing God in only a philosophical mien you’ll be tempted to consider God’s love as a minor trait by which He cares for us but not about us. The tragedy lies in missing out on his overwhelmingly loving, merciful and gracious personality that transcends all His other attributes. Brennan Manning said that God loves each of us with a “furious longing” and Jerry Walls wrote that “God will do everything he can, short of overriding freedom, to save all persons.” Furthermore, Open Theists believe that God will compensate for any individual’s lack of opportunity to receive salvation in this life and will make sure they have a fair chance to receive the eternal life for which all were created to enjoy.

In conclusion the Open Theism approach accentuates the idea that God’s sovereign and unconditional election is strictly corporate and vocational. It involves no horrible decree, no double predestination and no untrustworthy God. They want to clear the air of any misinformation regarding the Heavenly Father’s loving nature. They feel that the concept of unconditional, individual election has been destructive. Dave Hunt wrote, “My heart has been broken by Calvinism’s misrepresentation of the God of the Bible and the excuse this has given atheists not to believe in Him.” They feel a doctrine of restricted salvation is an appeal to our innate “us versus them” animalistic nature and is, therefore, a hard habit to break. But God is not the exclusive property of one group. He makes Himself available to all races, creeds and colors. His ways are fair and just; he doesn’t leave anyone out arbitrarily. Open Theists urge that all followers of Christ refuse to believe the lies the world broadcasts or fall victim to the anxiety created by misguided theologians now long deceased. You are God’s beloved child and your being “chosen” doesn’t mean that others aren’t “chosen” too. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit invite you to join in the original revolution and participate in the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth in anticipation of the day when Jesus Christ returns.

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