By Dr. Herbert Samworth
In our studies of the Openness of God theology, we have noted the challenge that it presents to the classical doctrine of God. The classical doctrine of God describes Him as sovereign over all His creation. In contrast, Openness theology pictures a God who repents over many of His actions and is willfully ignorant of what the future may bring. What is to be our response to this new presentation of the doctrine of God?
First, and foremost, we must be willing to study in greater depth the passages of the Word of God where it speaks of God’s repentance. What does the word “repent” mean when it is applied to God? We must be careful not to superimpose the human understanding of the word on the Biblical narrative. It is easy to create God in our own understanding. We must be sure that passages that speak of God’s repentance are exegeted correctly.
Second, we must gain greater understanding of how language functions when it speaks of God. Theologians make the distinction between univocal language, where the meaning is the same both for God and man, and analogical language, where the language is accommodated to our understanding. Is this the best way to speak of God? How does language function in order to reveal the true God? We must remember that God is God and we are His creatures. If God is truly God, and is transcendent over His creation, there must be some accommodation on God’s part for us to understand Him. John Calvin says that God “lisps” the word because of our limited abilities. It is impossible for us to speak exhaustively of God because it would require that we possess the same knowledge, both quantitatively and qualitatively, as God Himself.
Third, and we must allow Scripture to be our guide, what is our view of God Himself? Does Scripture give us an accurate view of God? Our presupposition is that, when God communicates to us through His Word and the Holy Spirit enlightens our understanding, the knowledge we gain is true knowledge. It can never be exhaustive knowledge because we remain finite creatures. Nevertheless, it is true knowledge, not that we understand everything in the same way as God does, but true in the sense that we can trust in it and receive it as the Word of God. If Scriptural language is incapable of communicating the true idea of God, from where can we gain it? In His High Priestly prayer in John 17, the Lord Jesus equated the knowledge of God and eternal life. If it is not possible to have the correct knowledge of God through the instrumentality of human language, how is it possible to possess eternal life?
There are two questions that must be asked about God. First, does the Word of God tell us that He is sovereign? It would be a case of supererogation to list all the passages in Scripture that assure us that this is true. To take one example, at the end of his trial, Job confessed that God was God and no purpose of His could be restrained. See Job 42:2. Nebuchadnezzar, the heathen king of Babylon, confessed that the Lord God ruled in the kingdoms of men. See Daniel 4:34-35. The entire context of Isaiah 40 to 66 speaks of God’s sovereign control over His people, His plan of redemption through the Messiah, and the establishment of a kingdom that will not cease. Isaiah did not write as one who thought that God’s knowledge of the future was open. The opposite was true; Isaiah taught that God exhaustively knows the future and His plan will stand.
However, there is also a second question that requires an answer. Does the sovereign God remain indifferent to the needs of man? According to the Openness theologians the answer is yes. Their explanation is that the doctrine of God has been framed in Greek modes of thought and does not accurately reflect what the Bible says about God. The Scriptures speak of a God who identifies with His people, a God who is concerned with their grief and heartache. In contrast, the Greek concept of God is a God who is impassive, stoical, and shows little concern about the heartache of man. However, the two cases cited above give us the personal testimonies of two individuals who had experienced God’s sovereignty first hand. Their words were not framed in the concepts of Greek philosophy but in the reality of what had taken place in their own lives.
The Bible does present a God who is very much interested in the concerns of His people. One of the most precious verses in Scripture is Isaiah 63:9, “In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them; in His love and in His mercy He redeemed them; and He lifted them and carried them all the days of old.” But this view of God is not confined to the Old Testament. Note 1 Peter 5:7, “casting all your anxiety upon Him, because it matters to Him about you.” How is it possible for language to communicate more clearly that our God cares for His people? The entire work of redemption is a testimony of His grace for fallen man.
We must remember that we live in a fallen universe. Sin has affected every area and every relationship under the sun. The entire world is skewed because of sin. This includes even our ability to understand it correctly. God accused Job’s three friends of not speaking correctly about Him in their dialogues with Job. Job’s friends had a certain view of God and, when things were not what they thought they should have been, they placed the blame on Job and accused him of hypocrisy. But their reactions to what had taken place in Job’s life were ultimately an accusation against God Himself. They saw Job as a sinner and God as one who punished sin. Their view of God did not permit them to understand that one could suffer righteously to vindicate the character of God.
How do we respond when we cannot find the answer to the things that we encounter in life? What answer can we give to those who experience things that appear to be so counter to all that we know of God? There is deep mystery here and any facile answer reveals more of our ignorance.
However, this leads to the most important question of all. If we are unable to reconcile certain aspects of God’s character, i.e. His transcendence and His immanence, does that mean that they are incapable of being reconciled? Do we have the ability to reconcile them? Is it God’s purpose for us to have the answers to everything that takes place in our lives? Is it necessary for us to know everything about God for us to obey Him? Do we demand that God answer every question that we might have about Him and how He operates His kingdom? If this is our attitude, then we are in for a difficult time indeed. If we are to know God exhaustively, as the Openness theologians appear to demand, this can take place only if we do one of two things. The first is that we raise ourselves to the level of God with exhaustive knowledge to understand Him completely. This option is so blasphemous that we can immediately dismiss it.
The other option would be to reduce God to our level, to say things about Him that reveal the ignorance of our understanding. We demand that God be presented in our image. He then becomes a God who, like us, is limited in knowledge and understanding. But this is not the type of God needed by people who face the difficulties of life.
Who is the God offered by the Openness theologians? He is one who does not have complete knowledge. He does not know the future. He is disappointed with some of the things that He has done. He repents because He has created man! Allow these words to permeate to the deepest level of your understanding. Is He One to whom you can commit the deepest issues of life? If He repents about the creation of man, what assurance can we have that He will not repent the fact that He has redeemed us?
This view of God does not make life more exciting, it makes it terrifying. What is there that enables one to keep following the Lord in the midst of difficult trials? Is it necessary for a person to have exhaustive knowledge of all that has taken place? No, because man is finite and could never attain to such knowledge. We remain faithful to God because we are convinced that God is working out His purposes according to His understanding. Life is perplexing, things occur for which there does not appear to be a reasonable answer. But what is the anchor of the soul? It is the fact that God controls all things. In His wisdom He has decreed that it is not always necessary for me to know the reason why something has taken place. But because I trust in His character, I know that it will result in God’s glory and my good. Is it impossible for me to remain patient under trial and await God’s timing to receive the answer? If I demand the answer immediately, I am saying, in essence, that I am more capable of running the universe than God Himself.
I would much rather serve a God who remains mysterious to my understanding than One whom I can explain by my finite and sinful wisdom. I know that I can trust Him to work out all things for my good. How can I be sure of this? I can be sure because His Word reveals to me what type of God He is. He has revealed enough of Himself and His plan for me to obey Him. What else could I ask for? What else dare I ask for? Does a creature of the dust have the authority to demand of the Ruler of the Universe an account of His actions? Paul tells us in Romans 9:20, “Who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, ‘Why did you make me like this, will it?'”
The Openness theologians have changed the nature of the Christian life. We are instructed in the Scriptures that we are to walk by faith and not by sight. The Scriptures require that we place implicit trust in the Lord and to obey Him even if we do not completely understand what is taking place. Listen to what Isaiah says to the person facing the perplexing issues of life, “Who is among you that feareth the Lord, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light?” This is an apt description of many people today. Isaiah continues, “Let him trust in the name of the Lord, and stay upon his God.” See Isaiah 50:10.
The rule of life for the Christian is the perceptive will of God. The perceptive will is what He has revealed in His Word. The Bible also speaks of a decretive will of God but that remains hidden in the depths of God Himself and has not been revealed to us.
In summary, we believe the Openness theology has done a great disservice to the Evangelical church. In an attempt to explain the perplexing things of life, it has caused greater confusion. There are many things that occur in the life of the child of God that defy explanation. One Puritan has written on this perplexing subject under the title, The Child of Light walking in the Darkness. Walking in the darkness is not the most comfortable place in which to be.
I would much rather walk with a God who is sovereign and omniscient than one whose knowledge of the future is as limited as mine. I can walk with God because the Word of God assures me that not only is He sovereign and omniscient but that He can be trusted implicitly.
I have no guarantee that the reasons for what takes place will be revealed in this life. But the life on earth is preparatory for the one to come. When we arrive at that place, I doubt that the things that perplexed us on earth will be a matter of great importance. If it is necessary for us to know them, we can be assured that they will be revealed to us in God’s good time. But for our life on earth, we walk by faith and not by sight.