When I was young and first heard the term “Calvinist” I asked what it meant. “It means someone who believes everything is predestined” someone answered. I had never met an authentic Calvinist (that I knew of) until our early touring days when a young lady drove me to the post office and began describing her church to me. Somehow we began to discuss our beliefs and this young lady described exactly what being a Calvinist meant for her. It was a strange conversation to me.
“Wait… So you believe God predestines certain people to go to hell?”
“Yes I do.”
“Why would God do that?”
“It brings him glory.”
I’ve since learned that some Calvinists believe this and some do not. Some kind of do, and some kind of don’t. Either way, I didn’t understand this logic and that conversation was one of the reasons I developed an intense interest in theology. I read all about different Calvinist ideas and different Arminian ideas from both sides of each position and while I could never agree with any of the Calvinist view points, I wasn’t really sure I agreed with all of the Arminian ones either. Now, this article has nothing to do with proving or disproving calvinism or arminianism or any other theological opinion. It’s about open theism and why it makes people upset.
A year ago I read a book by Greg Boyd called Letters From a Skeptic when I came across an interesting idea. In the book, Greg’s father asks him why God would create someone predestined for hell, and Greg answers by saying that God doesn’t. The explanation that followed, however, fascinated me, as it articulated what I had come to believe (more of less) about scripture and the future myself. Turns out this notion is something called “Open Theism” or “The open view of God.” I began to study the school of thought more, not knowing at the time that this way of thinking was in any way controversial, but I learned quick.
When Showbread recommended books or sermons by Greg Boyd (ones that had nothing to do with open theism) we would get instant emails that said things like “don’t believe anything Boyd says, he’s an open theist.” One comment we received on a social networking outlet read “Openness theology is heresy, plain and simple.” Another individual posted “I guess when a vacuum is created by a lack of sound Biblical Theology it will fill up quickly with garbage.” On the iTunes page for podcasts from Rob Bell’s church, someone expressed their disapproval, warning people to stay away because Greg Boyd had been a guest speaker at some point, and he’s an Open Theist. There you have it, Open Theism is even worse than Rob Bell… it must be straight from the devil himself.
This was strange to me. I knew, of course, that backlash is never, in and of itself, a valid reason to suspect that a theological idea is actually heresy. After all, many folks think that non-violence is heretical and use Jesus as a banner for war. To oppose the military brings immediate Christian backlash, so backlash is no reason to suspect that something is actually amiss with an idea. I decided to read what the objectors had to say.
To this day, after reading many articles, essays and books that speak out against open theism, I have not read anything that I believe to be a convincing case against it. In my experience, I see folks paint a very nasty picture of something they call open theism, but isn’t actually open theism at all. Almost every argument I have ever read against Openess Theology is simply a straw man.
For instance, Moody’s Handbook of Theology states in the first line of its evaluation of open theism “Openness theology directly affects the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. By postulating that God does not know the future and makes mistakes, how are the prophetic portions of Scripture believable?”
I’ve never heard of any Open Theist that believes God does not know the future and makes mistakes. It seems that some detractors of Open Theism believe, personally, that this is inevitable where Open Theism leads, but the fact is that open theists do not. If i argued that Calvinists believe God is hateful, arbitrary, unjust and sadistic, I suspect a Calvinist would (rightly) refute the claim. Just because I believe an idea leads to a certain conclusion does not mean that it does.
The truth is that Open Theists believe that God is completely all-knowing (omniscient), incapable of mistakes, omnipotent and completely sovereign (in control). Open Theists simply believe that God’s omniscience and sovereignty function in a different way than, say, Calvinists or Armenians believe. These conclusions are based on scripture alone and not opinions or personal conflicts outside of the bible.
As I pointed out earlier, this particular post isn’t meant to be a specific defense of the Open View (you can read that type of thing here and here) or a specific response to Calvinism (you can read that type of thing here and here). The debate over how God deals with the future, free-will and the like has been going on for hundreds of years so it’s always a little confusing to me when folks think it will be settled here and now over the internet. Discussion and humble/respectful debate can be very stimulating, i personally enjoy it, but more often than not it seems to lead to folks (like myself) defending opinions as if they were Jesus himself. The fact of the matter, I must confess, is that if the Bible was absolutely definitive and conclusive about every single theological idea then there would not be quite as much debate and not quite as many ideas. Open Theists believe what they believe because they believe that’s what the bible teaches… the same goes with Calvinists and Arminians and Roman Catholics and Protestants and every little branch of every little school of thought. Sure, some folks base their ideas on opinions or upbringing or other non-bible factors, but lots of people in every little sect believe what they believe because they believe that’s what the bible teaches.
If one man believes the future is completely predestined and another believes the future is partly predestined and partly made up of possibilities, is one a Christian and the other not? If one woman believes that she chose to follow God and another woman believes God chose her to be his follower, will only one of them be allowed in heaven? Yes, some ideas can be dangerous. Some ideas are healthy, some are not. But who is arbiter of what is what? Who can settle several-hundred-year-old debates over complicated, mysterious, spirit-inspired texts? I don’t say all this to imply that we shouldn’t try or that we shouldn’t have beliefs or convictions, but as a reminder that we simply don’t have the final word on God.
Open Theism, by definition, is not heresy. It is yet another scriptural based belief of how God deals with things like the future and free-will. The hostility directed at Open Theists within the evangelical community simply astounds me, especially given the fact that no one seems to know exactly what it is they’re mad about. If an angry guy yelled in the face of an Open Theist “The bible teaches God is all-knowing and does not make mistakes!” I assume the Open Theists would wipe the spit from his face and say “…Yeah. I know. I agree.”
Take the time to learn about things you disagree with if you want to have an accurate reason for disagreeing. I’m not saying everyone should become an Open Theist (in the grand scheme of things, it actually doesn’t matter all that much) but I am saying that if you want to have an official position, get some facts first. If you want to know what an Open Theist actually believes, I’d recommend the book of the week.
GOD OF THE POSSIBLE by Greg Boyd
p.s. if you feel inclined to send me an angry letter, reread this, you may have missed the point.