By Dr. Herbert Samworth
In February 1990 I was teaching a class at Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Being an adjunct professor, I often came early to read some of the periodicals in the Library. One day I happened to pick up a copy of Christianity Today, dated February 19, 1990, and noticed an article with the intriguing title of The Evangelical Mega-shift.
According to Robert Brow, the author, a sea change was taking place in Evangelical theology. One aspect of this change was a shift from a doctrinal-centered Christianity to one that placed more stress on experience. In the article, Dr. Brow used as an example of this “mega-shift” a decreasing emphasis on the doctrine of justification by faith and an increasing stress on the doctrine of adoption.
Martin Luther had called the doctrine of justification by faith the mark of a standing or falling church and many Church theologians consider it to have been the key biblical doctrine recovered by the Reformation. In Dr. Brow’s view, the doctrine of justification, as explained by Classical theologians, was modeled on the Roman judicial system. The motif of the presentation was a courtroom where God presided in the role of judge. The doctrine of justification emphasized legal terms such as judgment, guilt, and eternal punishment in hell. These were themes that people of the late twentieth century often found offensive and unhelpful to the realities of every day life.
In contrast, the presentation of the doctrine of adoption, or introduction into the family of God, emphasized a family room where God was portrayed as the Father. People who had experienced loneliness and estrangement could identify with this portrayal of God and the Christian life. Concepts such as acceptance, love, and intimacy resonated with such persons. For people of the late 20th Century, this was a more realistic, and in their view, more biblical, picture of God and the Christian life. Ministers were more apt to speak of God’s love than of God’s wrath. Following Dr. Brow’s commentary were the responses of several theologians who either favored the new emphasis or warned against its consequences.
I remember being so struck by the article that I asked the librarian to make copies for each member of the class. I told the students that, in my opinion, this was the most important article that had appeared in a religious magazine in the last twenty years. There was no doubt that such a “mega-shift” was taking place and this would be the spiritual climate in which they would exercise their ministries.
Nothing that has taken place in the Evangelical movement since that day has caused me to change my opinion about the significance of that article. There has been a definite shift away from a doctrinal-based religion toward one that appears to be experience driven.
At the same time, however, I could not help wondering whether other restatements of basic Christian doctrines would occur. I did not have to wait long.
Within five years of the original article, the opening salvo in a new offensive against the Classical presentation of theology was launched. This time the debate focused on the doctrine of God or what is called theology proper. The advocates of a restatement of this doctrine called their view “the Openness of God theology.” While the doctrine being reconsidered was the doctrine of God, and not the doctrine of justification, the reasoning and methodology were the same. The writers claimed that the “Classical” view of God, as held by the Church for centuries, failed to portray the Biblical view of God. These are serious charges, indeed, and every Christian needs to be aware of their implications.
At its heart, “Openness theology” deals with the understanding that one has of the Person of God Himself. Because of the importance of this subject, three articles will be devoted to it. In the first article, we will seek to set the context for this discussion and the questions under debate. The other articles will deal with the Scriptural basis on which the Openness theologians present their arguments and with the arguments that the Classical theologians use to rebut the Openness position and maintain the Classical view of the Doctrine of God.
THE OPENNESS POSITION
At the outset, I believe it is important to state that it appears that those who advocate the Openness position do so more as a reaction against perceived views of God than from new exegetical insights from the Scriptures. Although one must be careful in imputing motives to others, it appears that Openness theology is a reaction against views of God that emphasize His transcendence or difference from man. There is a reaction against a God Who is sovereign and Who both knows and controls future events.
The proponents of the Openness position disagree with the Classical presentation of God for two reasons. First, they are convinced that this description of God has its origin more from Greek philosophy and not as much from the Bible. They especially dislike the use of non-Biblical words such as infinity, immensity, etc. to describe God’s character. The result of this vocabulary makes God appear remote and impersonal. Second, they believe that the Classical view of God inhibits, or even denies, the freedom of man. Because God knows the future perfectly, this reduces man to nothing more than a robot incapable of making free and responsible choices. As a result, man has no ability to influence the future, either for good or evil. Because all has been preordained, such concepts as responsible and free choice, the liberty of the will, and prayer are reduced to meaningless concepts. These are serious charges indeed.
Certainly the portrayal of God that the Openness theologians claim Classical theology has taught is unattractive. A God Who is static, detached, and incapable of emotion has little appeal to people who face the difficulties and sorrows of life. Should one follow this view out to its logical conclusion, it means that all of life has been preordained and there could be no such thing as responsible choice in the universe. By definition, there could be no such things as contingency, secondary means, or uncertainty.
This would also mean that much of theological study, supposedly for the purpose of knowing and explaining God, has been tragically distorted. The description of God and His attributes by using Greek philosophical concepts has triumphed over the clear exegetical insights gained from the close study of the Word of God. Ultimately, the God of Classical theology would have to be the author of sin. He would have created men for no other purpose than sending the majority of them to an eternity of misery in hell. Life would be totally devoid of meaning because we live in a mechanistic universe.
To replace this “Classical” view of God, the authors propose the “Openness of God.” This means that God has voluntarily limited His knowledge of the future and there are things that He has chosen not to know. This means that the future is, in some ways, as unknown or open to God as it is to man. This also means that man can influence history, that prayer does change the mind of God, and God Himself is capable of repentance or changing His mind.
According to the Openness theologians, this new view of God has many advantages. It means that man does indeed have freedom, that responsible choices are necessary because they help determine the future, prayer takes on a whole different dimension and importance because prayer changes things, and man is more than a robot. This gives us a more attractive view of God because men can relate better to a God Who does not predetermine the future, a God Who takes man into partnership concerning what is to take place, and is, on the whole, a great deal more appealing to people that face the daily uncertainties of life.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THIS DEBATE
The Openness portrayal of God has repercussions far beyond just individual theologians developing a new way of studying theology. The persons who advocate this new view of God are from the Evangelical camp. What they say and teach will have an influence on the Evangelical movement for decades to come. It is not enough just to say they are merely attempting to be true to Scripture and not to take into account the impact of their statements.
One thing has been made clear. The Evangelical movement, held together by a voluntary consensus of theology more than by ecclesiastical organizations and doctrinal confessions, is in great danger of imploding. Whether or not the Openness theology is correct, at present, there is no effective means to evaluate it other than by personal opinion. The Evangelical weakness regarding the doctrine of the church, or ecclesiology, has been exposed by this controversy. While the desire to preach the Gospel and evangelize has been a laudable objective, the lack of a clear idea of the church and ecclesiastical discipline is evident. Evangelicalism, although giving formal assent to the role of the church, has been influenced more by strong personalities and para-ecclesiastical organizations than by churches.
American Evangelicalism has also been characterized by a pragmatic spirit rather than by theological accuracy. This agrees with the American spirit that chafes at theological discipline and restraint. Americans favor movements that “get the job done” more than organizations that spend time and resources discussing theological intricacies.
To the writer, this question touches on the future of Evangelicalism itself. Since the formal appearance of the so-called “mega-shift,” questions and debates have arisen over the doctrine of justification itself and the legitimacy of alliances with Roman Catholics.
This danger has not been lost on those who have lamented a decline in the study of theology in the church. Their concern is that methodology has triumphed over doctrine. Tragically, this has brought about more controversy than understanding. However, one thing is certain. It is serious because the Openness theology touches on other issues of prime importance including hermeneutics or the correct method to interpret the Word of God.
At the beginning, we must not fall into the trap of name-calling and pejorative comments. Thus, we need to understand the basic concern of the Openness theologians. They sincerely believe that the Classical method of describing God is not true to the Word of God because it dehumanizes man who now is reduced to little more than a robot. Life has no meaning because everything has already been predetermined. Openness theologians believe that their view of God will restore to man the dignity and responsibility to make correct choices that will affect history.
This is not just a difference of opinion between theologians that has no reference to real life situations. In some senses it is a battle for the soul of Evangelicalism and will chart the path that the movement will take in the coming years. At stake in this controversy is the Gospel itself. Sooner or later, theological differences make an impact on our understanding of the Gospel and how men can be reconciled to God. In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul stated that God had entrusted him with the Gospel. The most precious thing that God can commit to man is His Gospel. How important it is that we be faithful stewards of what has been entrusted to our stewardship! The word entrusted has the same root as the word faith or to believe. God has believed in us to the extent that He has placed in our hands the message that has eternal consequences for mankind. May we be found faithful to that trust!