During my undergrad days, I did some work on Open Theism, and I plan to post some of that here, in installments, in the near future. While I have the impression that Open Theism has declined in its influence, many of the arguments concerning the nature of God and his interaction with his creatures are present in Process Theology, which seems somewhat popular in some theological circles.
My posts here on this topic are not intended to be an academic discussion, much less an academic refutation, of the many issues which involve Biblical theology, systematic theology, and philosophy (particularly metaphysics and epistemology) in relation to Open Theism. It is a large subject. However, from time to time, I want to reflect on it, since these questions have taken a much more personal and existential level in my own life.
For the sake of any readers that might not be familiar with Open Theism and Process Theology (and they are not the same), let me just make a couple of clarifications that will undoubtedly be crudely simplistic because of their inadequate brevity (I plan to give more adequate descriptions in the future).
One basic contention common to the two schools of thought is that we need to properly understand what omniscience and omnipotence mean. In brief, since the future has not occurred, and therefore does not exist, God cannot know it; however, that is not a limitation of his omniscience, since God still knows everything there is to be known. What does not exist cannot be known, by definition, and it is no less omniscient to not know what does not exist.
Based on his exhaustive knowledge of the past and of the present, God can make very good predictions about the future – but ultimately the future includes irreducibly free actions of agents, which might defy odds and expectations. Therefore God cannot know it. And, therefore, we cannot accuse him of putting us into situations of innocent suffering as if he had known and “planned” it all along.
In this way, God can be understood as much more compassionate than the false God of classical/Greek philosophical/ontological Christian thought, who is outside of time, is immutable, and knows the future exhaustively. The classical model, it is argued, would entail that God could never be able to relate adequately to his creatures, and indeed he would be morally responsible for evil.
I wanted to start with a few paragraphs written by Bruce Ware on the topic, which I find helpful as an introduction of the subject, because it is just a glimpse of one important Biblical passage (out of dozens) that touch on these issues. The passage comes from the end of the Book of Genesis, when Joseph reflects on the injustices his brothers had inflicted upon him. Ware writes,
And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt. (Genesis 45:4-8)
No reader would complain when, in verses 4 and 5a, Joseph says that his brothers sold him into Egypt. Everything in the preceding narrative would indicate this is exactly true! The surprise comes as Joseph continues. Beginning in 45:5b, Joseph now clarifies the ultimate cause behind his being sent to Egypt. Here he deliberately switches from saying that his brothers sent him to saying God had sent him into Egypt.
Notice the language Joseph uses. He does not say, “You sent me here, and God responded by using this bad situation and turning it into good.” No, he shifts the ultimate causal force of his being sent to Egypt from his brothers to God. In 45:7-8, Joseph has come full circle. Now the brothers, concerning whom he had said were the ones who sent him to Egypt, are completely excluded. Joseph boldly declares, “But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.”
The brothers are out; God is in. Even the dreams God gave Joseph back in Canaan testify that God knew and planned the precise moment when the brothers would fulfill its prediction and bow at Joseph’s feet. It is as if Joseph and the narrative say, if you want to know the real cause of Joseph’s being sent to Egypt, do not look at the wicked actions of the brothers. To restate Joseph’s affirmation: God sent me here, and my brothers were his tools to accomplish the work he purposed to accomplish. To confirm this line of thought, Joseph declares in 45:8, “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.”
This is staggering! What it illustrates so well is that God is not passively uninvolved and inactive in the wicked actions of men. Rather, he ordains them for purposes that might not be apparent at all to the people at the time, and in fact, they may never know in this life. Joseph certainly had no clue for many years why all this happened in Egypt. Then, graciously, the good design of God was clarified.
Open theism [and process theology] simply cannot adequately account for such a text. The openness insistence that God is not involved in evil that occurs, and its firm rejection of the notion that God ordains and then uses evil to accomplish his good purposes, are both flatly denied by the story of Joseph.
Imagine Joseph’s dismay had he thought about his situation the way open theism would encourage! Gratuitous evil happens, Joseph would reason, and it has happened to me. I am a victim of this pointless evil and revengeful plotting of my brothers and now of the false accusations of Potiphar’s wife. Even the dreams God gave me about my brothers, dreams he meant to be an encouragement to me, have actually contributed to their hatred of me and thus to my increased suffering. God did not mean to do this, but in fact he has made my life immeasurably worse by granting dreams. Imagine my brothers bowing down before me! How absurd—it was wrong anyway!
Furthermore, God did not even know what was going to happen to me, and he is unable to control these horrible events. After all, free agents have done these things to me and God cannot know in advance what they will do nor can He control their actions. All I can do is accept the fact that this pointless suffering has been directed at me and has ruined my life. Yes, I am glad to know that God is with me in this prison, but how I got here, when if ever I might get out, and whether there is any purpose served from it, are all beyond the control of God. Woe is me, Joseph would think. What hope is there in this? My life is over. All I can do is despair.
That this was not Joseph’s understanding is evidence of the fact that he saw the hand of God in the wicked deeds of his brothers and every other event leading to his promotion in Egypt. God was not uninvolved; rather, he was orchestrating all that occurred! Joseph’s own summary statement of this episode of his life says it all.
The book of Genesis ends with the death of Jacob and the fear of Joseph’s brothers that Joseph might now take revenge on them. In Gen 50:20, Joseph responds, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” To God be the glory, great things he has done. And God’s great and glorious work relates as much to his ordaining and use of evil for the purposes he designs as it does to the clear good gifts from him in life. God’s people may be confident: God does work all things together for good for those who love him! Joseph’s story tells us so.
An extract of the article by Bruce Ware, Despair Amidst Suffering and Pain: A Practical Outworking of Open Theism’s Diminished View of God.
Click here for part 2