S. M. Hutchens on Open Theism & the Easy Road to Heresy
I have only recently, after years of letting it adhere lightly to the exterior surface of consciousness, come to a clear conclusion on what is known as the Openness of God theology. The denouement was the sudden realization that it exists in the classical form of a heresy, that is, as the affirmation of a truth in such a way as to efface or deny an equally true counterpart.
Arianism is a heresy because, while it rightly affirms the humanity of Christ, this humanity is used to deny his deity. Likewise, religious egalitarianism, while affirming the orthodox teaching that men and women, being of one substance, are equal, uses this truth as an appliance to defeat the equally true doctrine of the primacy of the man over the woman. In each case the truths seem contradictory, a sovereign logic demanding that one be chosen over the other, but in each case the Church has held to both with equal vigor and insistence.
Proponents of the Openness of God theology have been adept at displaying biblical passages where God is involved in chance, contingency, or ignorance, that is, in what active intelligence must experience in the vicissitudes of time and space: He changed his mind about Nineveh, tested Abraham and Job to see whether they would remain faithful—as if he did not know beforehand—and, incarnate (!) as a human child, learned and grew.
To be sure, the classical perfections of God drawn from the biblical narrative are all put at risk, if not contradicted, in that same narrative by—shall we say?—the perplexing “humanness of God,” and the tables customarily drawn up to summarize those transcendent attributes are as apt to cause consternation as assurance among those who know their Bibles. “Open Theism” is, I think, an attempt to deal with the humanness of God as an abstract theological problem outside a Christological framework in which the divine and human are perfectly related in the ineffable and paradoxical mystery of our faith.
What seems to be the great discovery of these theologians? Do they need to inform an ignorant or unheedful Church that God is “open?” I think not. The Church has always known that he is, in the ways constantly and insistently indicated by Scripture, and needs no convincing. Rather, their discovery seems to be in their use of this truth to deny or efface (by way of resolution) the divine attributes that form the other part of the paradox.
The paradoxes in which the church fathers so often reveled in the life of God, revealed to us perfectly in Christ, are all glorious impossibilities: God became man, omnipresence became circumscribed, the sinless became sin, omniscience became ignorant, omnipotence became impotent, and the immortal died. Tertullian said, Credibile est, quia ineptum est: “It is believable because it is, from the human point of view, absurd.”
But rationalist theologians, liberal or conservative, don’t like paradoxes. Instead of looking for them as signs marking the places where inquiry stops and doxology begins, they resist them on instinct and principle, and take out their hammers.
Chesterton protested thus:
Denying or diminishing, however, any aspect of the many paradoxes that form the warp and woof of Christian teaching, the foundation of which is God’s mysterious communion with his creation in the incarnation of the divine Son, involves us in heresy. Ultimately, the mistakes heretical teachers of this variety make are mistakes in Christology.
The God of the Old Testament is perfectly revealed in Christ, but his involvement in the world has always been based upon the union of persons in which creation and incarnation was, is, and shall be contained by anticipation, execution, and consummation. The relation of God to the world in the eternal Son has always been one in which time, space, matter, and every multiplicity of creation have been perfectly “taken into account” in the classical divine perfections with no diminution of either.
When someone (and I am thinking here primarily of an intelligent young Christian) is exposed to a form of religion in which one truth suffers at the hands of another, there is often a reactive tendency not to settle them by resolving them into paradox and letting them stand together, but to go over to the “other side,” committing the equal and opposite error.
If, for example, someone is taught to think of the perfections of God as theological abstractions so that no apparent disruption of those perfections evident in Scripture may be attributed to the mystery of God himself, but must be resolved in some unsatisfying rationalization (“God didn’t really ‘change his mind’ about Nineveh because . . .”), then coming into a conviction that there is an “openness” in God may seem a startling revelation about which it is necessary to write books, choose up sides—and deny what one had learned before about the absolute and ineffable characteristics of God.
But the Openness of God school, instead of acknowledging what Chesterton’s ordinary Christian has always known and going on its way corrected, has taken one tendency to err—that of propounding the perfections as abstract absolutes independent of the Christology that comprehends the entire biblical narrative (Luke 24:27)—and attempted to correct it by way of mitigation.
An Obstacle to Patristic Thinking
My own slowness to understand what was going on here I attribute to the influence of a certain variety of theological rationalism (not Reason!) on my mind. Something had to be knocked away before I could think patristically about the nature of a God whose attributes of omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, simplicity, aseity, and other absolute perfections could be thought of Christologically instead of as abstract qualities of divine Being to be projected upon an essentially impersonal infinity. When this latter mistake is made, God, to have life in communion with his creation, must be understood as just as abstractly and impersonally “open,” rather than known to us in the impenetrable Mystery whom, in seeing, we have beheld the invisible God.
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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“Paradox Lost” first appeared in the July/August 2009 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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