Monday, October 24, 2011

God, Time, and the unknowable future?

Theologically astute blog reader Bruce flattered me by asking my opinion on Open Theism. One of the advantages of being on sabbatical is I have both the time and the inclination to dig into questions like that.

Before I say ANYTHING about this debate. let me say first off that both sides of this debate (if you're not aware of the debate, it's got a couple major voices from the Twin Cities area, namely Greg Boyd on the Open Theism side and John Piper on the Classic Theism side) have been defended and articulated by people who are way smarter and more articulate than I am. I do not presume to settle the debate on this blog. However, I do think it's worth saying a couple things that may pull us back to a good place for the average Jesus-follower to stand. That is my goal, at any rate.

First, a couple basic (if simplistic) definitions. Classic theism states that God exists outside of or beyond time. God is classically defined by several "omni-" words --

Omnipresent means God is everywhere present.
Omniscient means God knows all things, including the future.
Omnipotent means God can do anything, is literally "all powerful."

Classic theism teaches that God is immutable, meaning unchanging, and impassible, meaning God can not suffer. Some classic theists say the cross is remarkable precisely because in the cross, the impassible God suffers; others say God the Father retains his impassibility but the Son suffers on behalf of the entire godhead. Entire books have been written about this, so don't think I'm accurately summing up all the arguments here.

Note that none of these bold words are used in the Bible to describe God. These words come from Greek philosophical thought rather than from biblical study. Each of these words has become a shorthand way to refer to an entire teaching about the nature of God. Each of these words has received a firm place within the traditional teachings of Christianity.

Open theism is a little harder to get hold of. This article on Wikipedia (I know, I know) does a fair job of summing it up and giving some sense of the variety and intensity of the debate. Open theism basically teaches that God has not predetermined the future, or perhaps that God does not know which of many possible futures will actually come to pass. God is thus more open to influence (via prayer, for example) than in classic theism. Open theism strives to take the idea of relationship with God seriously. If we can't influence God in any way, it's tough to have a relationship with God, say open theists. If everything is predetermined by God's will, it is pretty difficult to believe our prayers could have any effect.

Greg Boyd spins open theism slightly differently, saying it's more about the nature of time and reality than about the nature of God. Simply put, the future does not yet exist to be known by anyone, including God.

Enough summary. Time for a story.

When I was in seminary, I asked two profs a question that had been troubling me for a long time. "I've heard," I said, "that the Bible presents truth in a Hebrew way of thinking. How long after the New Testament documents does Greek thinking creep into Christian teaching? How quickly was the church's way of thinking about Jesus polluted by Greek philosophy?" You see, I was frustrated that so often in our Enlightenment, rationalistic ways of thinking we separate fact from fiction, truth from lie, in a sense that we dissect a dead cat. We think by knowing the cat in this way that we understand it. However, the truth of a cat is also about the warm fuzzy independent creature that bats at a moth or curls up in a sunbeam or jumps up on the counter to lick the tuna can. Dissection is at best part of the truth. I wanted to know Jesus in the way that the biblical writers understood him, without the patina of Greek philosophy that made me misunderstand so much of who Jesus was and is, what his death and resurrection meant, and how his parables even begin to make sense. I blamed Greek philosophy for this way of approaching truth, and I believed Hebrew thought recognized Jesus as the Way, the Truth, the Life, in a way Greek thought couldn't understand.

The professors looked at each other and one, a New Testament scholar, said, "Greek thought is integral to the New Testament." The other, a teacher of Greek linguistics, chimed in. "The New Testament is written exactly at the intersection of Greek and Hebrew thought. Take Paul, for example -- he is educated in Hebrew school, studying to be a Pharisee, but he also knows the Greek poets and philosophers." The first one nodded. "The New Testament is both Hebrew and Greek. You could probably argue that Jesus is more Hebrew than Greek, but even there I don't know that you could make a convincing argument. The more we learn about first century Palestine, the more we realize that even in Galilee, the people were deeply influenced by Greek language, culture, and thought."

So much for easy answers.

The open theism debate takes mutually exclusive ideas and tries to argue for one side or another. One side says the future is an open question, full of freedom and possibility, even though God is, in some sense, sovereign. The other side says God is without doubt or question sovereign, and our freedom is debatable.

My problem is that while both sides use biblical texts to back up their arguments (see the Wikipedia article), both are, at their core, arguing a philosophical position rather than a biblical one.

Here's the thing. The Bible is an incredibly rich, variegated set of texts. The way Genesis speaks about God, for example, is in many ways slightly different than the way Luke or Romans speaks about God. Not only that, but the way Genesis 1 speaks about God seems quite different in some ways from the way Genesis 2-3 speaks about God. These nuances exist throughout the Bible. God is one moment passionate and weeping for his estranged people, and at another moment holding all the universe in his hands and making sure the stars spin on schedule. God gets furiously angry with the Israelites and says he's sorry he ever chose them, and then he says to Israel, "I have loved you with an everlasting love."

So Jesus shows up and settles things, right? The Old Testament is just freaky sometimes, but Jesus makes it okay.

Not so fast. Jesus says he has come not to condemn the world but rather so that the world might be saved; but then he spends dozens of verses condemning the Jewish leadership, repeating the phrase, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" over and over again. He compares them to whitewashed tombs, full of dead men's bones. Jesus takes time to braid a whip out of cords (John 2) and brutally drives people and animals out of the temple grounds. Then he turns around when they're nailing him to the cross and says, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing." Possibly the best example is that in one place in Luke's gospel Jesus says to his disciples, "Anyone who is not against us is for us." A couple chapters later, Jesus says to them, "Anyone who is not for you is against you."

Reading the Bible beyond the most surface level is an incredibly rich, incredibly frustrating, life-changing pursuit. It's like marriage in many ways. It will not leave you unchanged. Probably it will not leave you unscarred. It will stir your deepest passions and expose your deepest faults. And, God willing, it will make you holy.

The Bible was written over roughly fifteen hundred years, in three different languages, in what today would be ten separate countries, by at least forty different human authors, addressing uncounted different historical contexts. It is an incredibly complex book.

Perhaps the miracle in all this is how consistent the Bible is. From the beginning to the end, the Bible speaks of a recognizable, personal God with whom you can have a dependable relationship. This God acts consistently, though not always predictably. Throughout the Bible, certain behaviors and attitudes -- idolatry, for example -- will get you in trouble with God. Other behaviors and attitudes -- repentance, for example -- without exception bring on God's mercy and forgiveness. God is consistently sovereign throughout the Bible, consistently jealous for the hearts of his people, consistently angry with those who teach falsehood as truth, consistently merciful to those who are beaten down, consistently vengeful to those who set themselves up as lords in their own right.

Not to say that good guys always win and bad guys always lose. The Bible is a book about reality, and so evil is part of it. The innocent suffer. The self-centered sometimes prosper in the short term. Disasters and famines and wars maraud over the land and people get hurt. But in all of it, a recognizable, consistent God is there, in the mix, yearning for his people to return to him.

The trouble comes when we try to take this incredibly complex text, this incredibly complex relationship, and reduce it down to a "systematic theology" -- a system in which we can say that Truth looks like this, God is always like this, evil is always like this, human beings are always like this. Cut the cat open and examine its organs and you will understand it.

If you have ever been in love, let alone married, you know relationships don't work like that. My wife is wonderfully consistent, but heaven help me if I ever begin to think she's predictable. The problem with both classic theism and open theism is that they're both trying to systematize God's relationship with the future, with our freedom, with his own sovereignty, with time. They are trying to define truth using one set of biblical texts to make sense of something that might just be beyond human reason. (Be honest -- have you ever thought maybe love itself was beyond human reason?) Each of these sides emphasizes one set of biblical texts at the expense of other biblical texts. Like with most theological debates, if you choose one side you alienate yourself, not only from the other theologians, but also from the Bible verses they prefer. As a classic theist, you'll be tempted not to read Exodus 32 much. As an open theist, you'll be tempted to ignore Isaiah 46. And the list of texts goes on and on.

Some theologians are wired in such a way that they just have to systematize God. They cannot rest until they have figured out a rational answer to the questions. I believe they are created this way for a reason, and that God is using their intellectual pursuits to help people come to know him. But don't make the mistake of pitching your tent in their camp. Read what they say, if you like, and let it spur your own thinking. But better yet, pursue the God who reveals himself in the Bible, in all his richness and complexity and frustrating personality. Realize that in the Bible, truth is often paradoxical. You will most often find the truth by being, not at one end of the spectrum or the other, but at both ends at the same time.

(An example: Is God sovereign over matters of people being saved? Or do we need to evangelize all nations? The answer, of course, is "Yes.")

In most of these debates I like to read until my head starts to hurt just a little, then I retreat to one of my favorite biblical texts. At the end of a life in which the Bible says he knew God better than anyone, as one friend speaks to another, Moses made the following observation:

"The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever" (Deuteronomy 29:29).

If you're going to focus your energy on anything about God, focus not on the things that are hidden from us, barely visible along the horizon of our deepest thoughts. Instead, focus on the things God has clearly revealed. His name is Jesus. The Gospel of John is a great place to start.


  1. Thank you Jeff, this is very insightful and helpful - especially that last passage from Moses.

    It seems to me that the Open vs. Classic Theism debate is much like the (older) debate about Calvinism and Arminianism. Good folks stand on both sides of the issue and the reality is that we likely can't fully know. Perhaps this is as God intended.

    There is great wisdom in your admonition to seek after the components of God's nature that He has revealed. Thanks again!

  2. Bruce,

    Thanks for asking the question! I learned a lot digging deeper into the debate. I think your comparison to Calvinism / Arminianism is apt. As I said above, so often we need to stay on both ends of the spectrum and hold mutually exclusive truths in tension rather than being on one side or the other.

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