We Need to Talk About Open Theism image

We Need to Talk About Open Theism

Open theism is complicated, much-debated and slightly dated, which might make it a strange subject to write about here. It is complicated: there are many varieties of open theism, which means that a response to one strand is not a response to all. It has been much-debated: in books, articles, conference papers, websites, symposiums, and in one famous case, a vote on expulsion from the Evangelical Theological Society. It is slightly dated: the high point of the debate was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, since when a certain fatigue has set in (not to mention the fact that a number of the leading protagonists on both sides of the aisle have since died). So it might be worth explaining why it’s still worth talking about.

I could offer a number of general reasons:

- The aftermath of theological controversy is often when the significant changes really happen (as the mid-fourth century should have taught us).
- Social media has disempowered the formal gatekeepers of evangelical theology, and tipped the balance in favour of winsome popularisers, and Greg Boyd (for example) is a very winsome, accessible and nice guy.
- The problem of suffering remains the most compelling objection to Christian belief, so new (or apparently new) ways of responding to it will always have an appeal.
- There is an intuitive “fit” between intercessory prayer, especially in charismatic Church life, and the changeability of God; prayer certainly feels like it is changing both the future and God’s mind, and if it isn’t, then why are we doing it?
- Divine impassibility sounds, to many contemporary Christians, like it means God doesn’t care.
- Many aspects of the so-called “warfare worldview” are evidently biblical, and have been part of orthodox theology since the beginning.
- Various eminent Christian philosophers and theologians (Moltmann, Polkinghorne, Swinburne, Van Inwagen, Ward, Willard, Wolterstorff), have embraced some version of open theism in the last three decades.
- And so on.

But there is a more specific reason, too. In my particular context—charismatic evangelical churches with (generally) a high emphasis on the personal experience of God and (generally) a low emphasis on rigorous theological training for leaders—the conditions are ripe for a perfect storm. Imagine, if you will, a confluence of (1) the most winsome face of open theism, especially when set in contrast to the most austerely fatalistic forms of Calvinism, (2) a Bethelesque insistence that, since Jesus healed everybody he met, God always wills to heal everyone of everything, and (3) a popularised version of the apocalyptic reading of Paul, which (if it isn’t already) will surely be upon us soon. Imagine it set against the backdrop of a culture that sees God and salvation in increasingly therapeutic terms, and finds it increasingly difficult to think of a good Father bringing any sort of pain to his children (with all the implications that has for suffering, hell, biblical violence, restrictions on sexual expression, and so on). Imagine, that is, a weird fusion of Greg Boyd’s Satan and the Problem of Evil, Bill Johnson’s When Heaven Invades Earth and Lou Martyn’s Galatians, with a sprinkling of David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea thrown in for good measure. It should give us pause.

Or, in my particular case, a couple of blog posts. See you on Wednesday.

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