Why does Open Theism matter?

I’ve been spending a few days talking about Open Theism. Why have I given so much attention to what on the surface looks like an obscure theological viewpoint which is not widely known.  I want to suggest that there are significant things at stake, not just theologically but pastorally as well.  You see, whilst there may be few people who explicitly and overtly hold to this position as a system of thought, as I intimated right back at the beginning, the ideas we associate with Open Theism do permeate into a lot of popular level Christianity. 

To give two notable examples, whilst I don’t think that either Steve Chalke or Rob Bell have publically identified with Open Theism, both in their approach to questions about the Gospel, Atonement and eternity start from the same interpretation of 1 John 4:8 and both place an emphasis on human freedom. 

It’s not just with specific leaders and writers though.  I think that if you were to ask most Christians what their understanding of prayer is, or how they explain the problem of suffering, then their answers would involve some suggestion that God does change his mind in response to our prayers and that this is linked into the priority of free will.  Think even about how we encourage people to pray and to worship.

Now, to be utterly clear, I do believe that prayer matters, that it does something and that whilst a central aspect of it is that we learn to align our will with God’s will, so that the primary change is in us and whilst God himself does not change, that prayer has an effect, so that we can say it changes things.  What I would argue is that prayer changes things because that is how God has purposed things to happen.  However, we need to place God’s sovereignty at the centre of our understanding of how that happens.

This is because the first reason why we want to avoid Open Theism, in belief and practice is because we want to know and worship God rightly.  Theology matters pastorally.  Open Theism is to be rejected because it presents a different, a false view of God that diminishes his glory. It is idolatrous.

More than that, though. Open Theism is inherently problematic pastorally and offers bad news, taking away hope in the midst of suffering.  Think it through.  We are being told that we want and need a God who is essentially weak, a God who will bend to our will.  Yet, what sort of God is that and what kind of hope is it? It suggests that we, individually or collectively may at times know better than God.

If we need God to change his mind, then that implies that he gets things wrong.  So, if he has got it wrong, if his will is imperfect and faulty, then he either got it wrong because of lack of knowledge, because he missed something. His intention was good but his implementation wrong. Alternatively, God knew that what he intended was harmful and unnecessary but was going to do it anyway. In which case, God intended evil.  God is either not good or not great.

Consider this then. Isn’t it better to have a God who knows, eternally and from the start what is right and good, what is best.  If God does know what is good and what is best, then why would we want him to change his mind? Why would we want a God that we can distract from his perfect will and purpose.  If our way arises out of genuinely finite and truly fallen minds and wills, then why would we want our will to win.

It is worth remembering that whenever Scripture talks about God being sovereign and whenever it tells us about election, foreknowledge and predestination, that it does so not to cause a philosophical debate. It does so for our encouragement and reassurance. It’s pastoral rather than polemic.  Modern writers and apologists think that the good news we need is that we are truly free and autonomous.  The Bible writers think that the good news is that God is truly sovereign. 

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