Open theism, process theology, and suffering – Part 1

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


13 comments on “Open theism, process theology, and suffering – Part 1

  1. Ladd Hewitt says:

    My understanding is that if God knows ALL of the future, He would be quite inactive in human events. There would be nothing to plan, nothing He could change, no Joy, no anger, no ‘sending’, and I can’t imagine the feeling of impotence God would have. The Open View simply corrects the foolish human definition of omniscience and allows God to be involved in the human experience as He chooses. The future that God would know is simply what He would choose to control. He is free to do anything He chooses in His creation. The key word is ‘chooses’, our theology simply cannot take that away from Him. To define His knowledge as a trap to take away His omnipotence is certainly not what believers want to do when we define his omniscience. The story of Joseph is easy to understand through the eye of the open theist, The problem with evil comes when we declare that God knew and therefore planned the whole human experience which puts Him as responsible for evil. This view also does make Him impotent. If He is forced to ‘know his own future’ He is unable to plan anything, change anything, and you have to wonder, how long has he known the future, for ever? Unnecessesary mind boggling thoughts. Praise God that He doesn’t have to exist in our theological schemes, eh!
    May God continue to bless you

    • Thank you Ladd for you comments.

      I wonder, though. Why would you think that “God is forced to know the future”? Do you think he is forced not to cease to exist, or not to sin? And if the story of Joseph is so “easy to understand through the eye of the open theist,” could you provide the explanation? Joseph said, ““So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” So who was it? Was it the brothers who sinned or was it God who sent him? Also, if an omniscient God would be unable to plan anything, does that mean that a righteous and eternal God would be unable to sin and commit suicide if he wanted to? Do you think that is a limitation on him? Do you think that makes him feel constrained? Furthermore, if you are happy that God “doesn’t have to exist in our theological schemes,” do you still think he lives in the Open Theist theological scheme? There are many more questions, but maybe we can start with these.

    • “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” So did God plan that? If not – in the case that an omniscient God could not plan anything – than what does the statement even mean? How can God intend something he did not plan? And if he did, how is that he did not know about it? Also, how do we make sense of specific prophecy in Scripture (I have about a dozen texts that I analyze in my forthcoming posts). Can God really predict that someone will commit a particular sin, since he can neither know it, nor can he choose to make someone to sin, since, obviously that would make him the author or evil?

  2. fatherniko1 says:

    Another wonderful, well-thought-out affirmation, Marcelo. The story of Joseph is one of my favorite in the Bible and often brings tears to my eyes (maybe it’s because I have a bunch of brothers, too!). Well said, with regards to God’s omniscience.

  3. Ladd Hewitt says:

    Marcelo, thanks for the reply.
    Lets see if I can write anything that clarifies and is in the spirit that you wrote. Your first question: I meant that if, as we believers tend to claim, God’s omniscience includes ‘knowing the future’ simply as an attribute of God’s make-up, then we could say that He couldn’t help but know the future. I used the word ‘forced’ without explaining it well but you could probably hear the negativity coming thru. You see, I can’t help seeing a great conflict that comes with ‘knowing the future’ and omnipotence. How could these two ‘strengths’ exist together? Is it not enough for God to know everything that is? Am I mistaken in concluding that if God KNOWS events that WILL happen in the future that these events would be ‘fixed’, unchangeable, written in stone so to speak, and God would defile this foreknowledge if He changed any of it. Picture this situation with every tiny occurance every moment all around the world and beyond. God watches things happen and can’t do anything to change them.
    So, I believe that future things are still ‘open’ for God. He may choose to let them happen or take a hand in controlling them to any level that He chooses. Knowing the future exhaustively turns into a detriment that works against HIS OMNIPOTENCE and removes any freedom to act in response to situations or persons who He declares “are His glory”.
    Humans developed the word ‘omniscience’ and humans define it as they wish. If well meaning people are translating the bible or writing commentaries with this understanding of ‘omniscience’, we have to wonder how many small items are affected.
    God Bless
    PS sorry for the long delay responding

    • Ladd,

      You ask, “Is it not enough for God to know everything that is?” That’s like asking, “is it not enough that human beings know that squares can not be circles at the same time and in the same sense? Do they also have to know that triangles can not be circles at the same time and in the same sense?” It is not a question of whether one thinks something is “enough” or not given their own ideas of what is enough or not. It is a question of what sense we can make of Revelation, and what logical conclusions we can derive from such.

      You state, “You see, I can’t help seeing a great conflict that comes with ‘knowing the future’ and omnipotence.” Well, that’s a conflict for you, given your own standards. In other words, you think that it would be immoral for God to know evil to be around the corner in any given situation, and not do anything about it. Well, there are a billion answers in the whole history of Christian theology for the problem of evil – answers that include middle knowledge, free will, greater purposes, etc. Take your pick. And if not, then defend how special revelation does not affirm God’s infallible knowledge of the future – which I argue it is an impossible defense.

      You state, “Humans developed the word ‘omniscience’ and humans define it as they wish.” That is really irrelevant. It would be like saying, “Humans developed the word ‘trinity’ and humans define it as they wish.” Of course we do. That’s called tagging an idea with a referent – which in and of itself does not say anything of the veracity or not of the referent.

    • Wow, has it really been 7 months since I’ve been here? Sorry.

  4. tripp fuller says:

    marcelo i just want you to know how much this post made me think we should argue about this at the Press with a cigar! I guess God knows when that will happen even if I don’t.

  5. tripp fuller says:

    You sure know how to get me into Calvin name dropping!

  6. david says:

    Interesting article. You’re making me think! Thanks.

    I observe something that feels rather like a logical error. Not sure it is. Help me out, please.

    You state, “…the future has not occurred, and therefore does not exist, God cannot know it … What does not exist cannot be known, by definition, and it is no less omniscient to not know what does not exist.”

    The statement is clearly made from the point of view of creation, from our experience. But we have a situation where the creation, us, making an assumption that our creator is subject to the same limitations that we are.

    Given that the object of our assumption specifically exempts himself from that specific limitation (Isaiah 46:10), I wonder if that assumption is a logically safe foundation upon which to build a theological conclusion?

    Thanks for looking into the topic. Sure seems to be a hot topic right now.

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