Is Open Theism Biblical?

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The Biblical argument for Open Theism is set out in Richard Rice’s chapter in The Openness of God.[1] As we saw in the previous post, the foundation for the argument is 1 John 4:8.  Rice goes on to argue that the approach is supported more widely by Scripture. The next part of the argument is that Scripture points to God having feelings or emotions. He draws particular attention to God’s pleasure such as in Genesis 1 where God takes delight in his creation or the frequent reference to God’s delight (e.g. Psalm 149:4 and Jer 9:24).[2]  The Old Testament also speaks of “jealousy and anger” as well as “hope and joy”.[3]

Rice states that

“It is not uncommon for people to dismiss these emotional descriptions of God, numerous though they are as poetic flights, essentially unrelated to the central qualities that the Old Testament attributes to God.  As they see it, the real God of the Bible is made of sterner stuff. He is powerful, authoritarian and inflexible, so the tender feelings we read of in the prophets are merely examples of poetic license.”[4]

Here, Rice makes what I consider to be a number of mistakes in misunderstanding the position of those he disagrees with.  Here is Rice’s argument against the Doctrine of Divine Impassibility.  However, he seems to assume that impassibility is about preferring one emotional state above others, that emotions like love, sadness etc are signs of weakness, there is no place for tender feelings.  Describing God as “made of sterner stuff” would in fact replace one set of emotions with another set. Yet impassibility is meant to mean that God is not subject to/influenced by/mailable through any emotion.  It’s also worth observing that whilst some expressions of impassibility describe God as though emotions themselves are negative and so God is in effect without them, it is more proper to say that God is not subject to their influence.  So, God clearly expresses anger, love, sadness but unlike a human being he is not at the whim of those emotions.

The other error is in his assumption that others dismiss these emotional descriptions as “poetic flights.”  First, I think this is to sorely underestimate and dismiss the nature and purpose of poetic language.  Much of the Old Testament employs poetic language, a crucial rhetorical approach, in fact, significant portions of the Prophetic literature is structured as poetry with suggestions that it may have been sung rather than simply spoken.  Poetry is powerful, it deliberately works on the emotions and the intellect but is no less true for that.

However, classically, we do speak of two things. First, we say that a lot of language about God is anthropomorphic. This means that when we talk of his “strong arm” that we are not mean tto think of him as having a literal, human body.  Second, we want to think carefully about how God communicates with us and the type of language used.  There are three types of language which he could use:

  • Univocal language, where every word has exactly the same meaning when applied to God as when applied to creation..
  • Equivocal Language, where a word when describing God has no point of reference in its meaning applied to creation
  • Analogical language, where the word’s application to God and creation may not be identical but there is a reference point.

The third approach is the correct one. It recognises that the infinite, eternal God is completely other than us, so that it is futile to attempt to define him, especially with human language. At the same time, it recognises that God “condescends”. He chooses to communicate with us.  So, for example, if God is compared to a knitter, or a lion, then that doesn’t mean he is a rock, lion or a knitter as we would understand those things but that when we think about them, we can draw some understanding of how they might be pale shadows of what God is. 

This must apply to words like “love” too.  We would not want to make either of two possible mistakes. We know that God’s love is not like our finite, human love, however we also believe that it is possible to talk meaningfully about God’s love with some level of understanding.

The other part of Rice’s argument is that God changes his mind in regard to his intentions.  The argument then is that statements about God not changing are in reference to his character, not his existence (Malachi 3:6; Numbers 23:19, 1 Samuel 15:29).[5]  This seems to presume an over distinction between God’s character and existence,  between his nature and his will, especially when we consider the simplicity of God. In fact, it becomes clear why it is necessary for Open Theists to deny God’s simplicity.

Then there are the reported examples of God changing his mind in response to human petition in Scripture.  The big examples offered are:

  1. Nineveh after Jonah’s prophecy. [6]

God sends Jonah to prophecy judgement on Nineveh, however, after his message, the people repent and God relents from destroying the city.  It is worth observing in the passage, that Jonah’s anger at God includes his frustration that he knew this would happen. This points then, rather than to an example of God changing his mind of an implied condition on the original prophecy “If you don’t repent, then …”  It is possible to see God’s predestined purpose as including the repentance of Nineveh.

  • Abraham’s intercession for Lot/Sodom and Gomorrah[7]

In Genesis 18, we are told that God shares his plan to destroy the cities with Abraham who then intercedes.  It seems that Abraham is bargaining with God, will he spare the city for the sake of 100, 50, 10 faithful souls.  However, when we look at the narrative, we see two things, first that God intentionally draws Abraham into his plan, so that he is the one who is initiating and driving the conversation.  Secondly, God’s plan does not change. He still destroys Sodom. Abraham must acknowledge that the judge of all the earth does do right because there are not in fact 50 faithful people and Abraham will not bargain down to one.  God’s plan is greater, to deal with sin and to deliver the righteous man from the place of evil.  Abraham does not change God’s mind, he grows in understanding of his will.

So, the Biblical text does not provide a convincing case for Open Theism. In one respect, that should be enough for us but I also believe that practically and pastorally, Open Theism is deeply unsatisfying and fails to deliver what it promises.  We will come back to this in a later article.

[1] Richard Rice, “Biblical Support for a new perspective” in The Openness of God, 11-58.

[2] Rice, 22.

[3] Rice 23.

[4] Rice 25.

[5] Rice, 47.

[6] Rice, 27.

[7] Rice, 29.

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