By Dr. Herbert Samworth
In our previous article we stated that the Openness of God theology was causing a great stir in the Evangelical Church. In the present article we will note the views of the Openness theologians, especially how they interpret the text of Scripture.
It is our settled conviction that what is at stake in this controversy is nothing less than our understanding of the doctrine of God. The Openness theologians are convinced that the picture of God given by Classical theology is not the one found in Scripture. These individuals are convinced that the God of the Bible has been taken hostage by Greek philosophy. As a result they believe that many people cannot relate to a God who apparently is without emotion and seemingly indifferent to the needs of people. They believe the Bible describes a God who expresses emotions including sorrow, anger, and, at times, even repents of His actions.
The Classical view of God is one that emphasizes God’s transcendence or separation from His creation. God’s transcendence means that He is infinitely different from any aspect of creation. There is an absolute difference between God and man. As a result of this great distance between God and man, the Openness theologians believe that modern man finds it difficult to believe that God is interested in him. When this stoical God is assigned the attributes of unlimited power and knowledge, any meaningful relationship with man becomes even more difficult.
The Openness theologians, to counter this disengagement between God and man, emphasize what is known as the immanence, or nearness, of God. Immanence means that God always operates within the realm of understanding grasped by man. Thus it is possible for man to understand and identify with God. Rather than being aloof and remote, God is near and caring.
This understanding of God has been reflected in a theological paradigm that portrays God as a loving Father welcoming the wandering child back into the family. For too long, according to the Openness theologians, God has been portrayed as the judge in a courtroom who dispenses justice but not mercy.
In their view, it is this God, portrayed as the loving Father, who is needed in the times that we find ourselves. People who have experienced the grief of loss and separation can find consolation and identification with such a God.
It is but one step further to portray such a loving, caring God as One who identifies with His children on the journey of life. People, who face perplexing situations, are often at a loss as what action to take when they are confused, hurt, and things do not turn out as hoped or expected. It is comforting to find that our God shares these same experiences with us. The Openness model portrays such a God. Are we disappointed when things turn out badly? So is God. Note what is said in Genesis 6:5-6… “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.” As this verse appears to say, God also knows disappointment and failure. He also has done things that He wished that He had never done. This is the type of God that broken-hearted and disappointed people need to know. God shares in their experiences.
Openness theologians are quick to emphasize that these actions of God are voluntary. No greater power or force has caused Him to act in this way. This is a self-limitation that enables man to gain a greater understanding of God. God not only knows our frame, but also He volunteers to share these life experiences with us. Because the future is as unknown to God as it is to us, we can identify more readily with God in our every day experiences.
The Openness theologians list biblical passages, including the one cited, to sustain their claims concerning God. The Scriptures, they say, speak of God’s repenting or changing His mind concerning His actions. For example, in Exodus 32 where the children of Israel sinned by making a golden calf, God threatened to destroy the people. Moses interceded for them by asking God to repent of His threatening. Exodus 32:12b, “Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against they people.” What was the response of the Lord to this prayer of Moses? Genesis 32:14, “And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.”
The Openness theologians cite this passage to reaffirm their belief that God does indeed change his mind and repents of His actions in response to intercessory prayer. What is the use of intercessory prayer if God’s actions have already been determined from eternity?
There are additional verses cited by the Openness theologians to support their view of God. However, the ones cited give us the view of a God who repents, does not know the future, and who takes risks.
As we consider their view, it is important to understand how they arrived at such a position. Their view of God is something that is relatively new. For centuries, the Classical view of God as sovereign over His creation was prominent. The Classical view of God portrayed Him as all-powerful and knowing. His sovereignty was pictured as a comfort and shelter to His people rather than something that kept them at arms’ length.
The Openness view of God has its origin from the way that Scripture is interpreted. Rules of interpretation, taken from the Bible itself, are used to draw out the author’s intended meaning. This is known as Hermeneutics, the method used to understand what the author meant when he wrote or spoke. However, behind the hermeneutical system is an understanding of human language and how it operates.
One understanding of language is that it expresses exactly what reality is. This is called univocal language. There is one meaning that applies both to God and man. In other words, the meaning is identical for God and man. Another type of language, called analogical, states there is not the same exact meaning for God and man. While this can become quite complicated, its basic meaning is simple.
God communicates to man by using language. God created human language so that He might communicate with man. However, there is an infinite qualitative difference between God and man. God is uncreated; He is self-existent. Man is created and dependent. However, God graciously communicates to man in a manner that man can truly understand what God is revealing. This does not mean that God has reduced Himself to the limitations of man nor does it mean that man is elevated to equal status with God. If all language were univocal, this would be the result. However, the majority of Bible scholars believe that communication between God and man is achieved by the use of analogical language that preserves the differences between God and man.
However, the Openness theologians dispute this. They accuse the Classical theologians of having two motifs or themes in dealing with statements regarding God. When God says that He does not change or that He is all knowing, Openness theologians accuse Classical theologians of speaking about God using a motif of future determinism or as God truly is. This would be a use of univocal language; it describes God as He really is. However, when Classical theologians cite Scriptures that speak of God repenting or not knowing the future, they interpret these statements by the motif of future openness or as God appears to be. Classical theologians are accused of resorting to analogical language when it suits their purposes to deny God’s changeableness.
In summary, Openness theologians accuse Classical theologians of interpreting God’s actions by different types of language to sustain their position that God does not change. The Openness theologians believe that this is not only bad hermeneutics but fundamentally dishonest.
However, when the Openness theologians make this accusation, they fail to consider the absolute difference between God and man. They minimize God’s transcendence to enhance His identification with His people. In reality, all language about God is to some extent analogical because only God can truly speak exhaustively about Himself.
Although God is transcendent, this does not mean that He is indifferent to human needs. Openness theologians are correct in stating that a God Who remains indifferent to the human condition is not the Biblical one. However, the Openness theologians misunderstand what the early Greek theologians meant by God’s impassiveness. God’s impassiveness meant that His joy could not be destroyed by human action and not that He is totally indifferent to the condition of man. The Scriptures tell us that He is moved with our afflictions. The true meaning of God’s impassiveness is that He remains God regardless of what man does. Before the omnipotence of a mighty God, the blusterings of finite man are nothing.
This does not mean that God is indifferent to human needs. Man experiences grief and misery because of his sin. God did not remain indifferent to man’s sin but He determined to do something about it. John 3:16, probably the most familiar verse in the entire Bible, tells us that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son. God gave His Son to die on the cross for the sins that man had committed. There can be no greater demonstration of God’s love.
The Gospel is the ultimate rebuttal to the claims of the Openness theologians. Christ did not die to make God love us; God loved us and sent His Son. Not only did God save man from the penalty of his sin, He is constantly working out salvation in his life. Having saved man, God does not abandon him. Note what Isaiah, the Evangelical prophet, wrote hundreds of years before the coming of the Lord, “For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.”
A careful reading of Isaiah forty to sixty-six reinforces the biblical portrayal of a God who is both transcendent and immanent. He is the One who is sovereign, who knows the end from the beginning, but He is also a God who draws near to help and comfort.
The Openness theologians say that the adoption of their view of God will reinforce the liberty of choice that enhances man’s understanding of himself, will make life more exciting when we recognize that God also shares our limited knowledge, and make prayer more meaningful because it will bring about real change.
However, it is necessary that we have a biblical view of ourselves as well as of God. Although we may have regenerate hearts, we must remember that we are finite and sinful. Only God has the correct view of Himself. He has given us that picture in His Word. Yes, there are biblical passages that are difficult to interpret. The exact shade of meaning may evade our grasp. However, the Bible states clearly that God is sovereign over all His creation. God knows all about our condition. He is exactly the kind of God that we need. To adopt the view espoused by the Openness theologians means that we would lose God Himself. There are many things that we can afford to lose, but we cannot afford to lose God.