Theology for the Long Haul

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Dan Smitley: Response II

The reason that I am not more enthusiastic about the approach of Open Theism (as I understand it right now) is because I perceive it to be moving away from the ecumenical, consensual understanding of God’s nature articulated in major patristic, medieval, and reformation traditions.

My response – I think this is a completely fair and reasonable concern. We should certainly be leery of new thinking/movements that seem to be going in the opposite direction of tradition. We should vet them properly and I understand that is part of what has happened with Open Theism (when it is done constructively and not simply “THEY ARE HERETICS!!!”). And while I think it is very important that we question thinking that moves away from traditional understanding, it is not ecumenical or consensual understanding that establishes the best truth about God, it’s the Bible. I am sure we all would agree to this but I wanted to state it clearly for my next point.

See Jacob's response in the comments section...

It appears to move beyond defining love in the traditional categories of divine initiative and human response to articulating a view of God’s ontology as changing.My response – One of the arguments that Open Theists make is that the traditional view of God is changeless and static has less to do with a biblical view of God and more to do with a Greek/Hellenistic view of God.

The basic argument is that the Bible presents God as one who does change. One who says “this is the plan” and yet later on changes His mind. His changes however are always within line to His nature(character), which never changes. It’s true that seeing God has changing is not a traditional view of God but normally that is because people understand God being “perfect” as God being “static”. We often have a hard time understanding how something can be changing and experiencing new things and yet still be considered perfect. For a Greek mindset perfection meant that which nothing can be added, so for God to experience something new or “learn” something would mean that He is imperfect, and thus not God. It is from this mindset that we then approach the Bible and say “well He didn’t REALLY change it His, it just looks like that”.

He is capable of authentic love with human beings without experiencing ontological change… to suggest that God in His divine nature must be open to change in order to have authentic relationship (like some process theologians and supporters of panentheism suggest) is a departure from the ecumenical consensus.My response – I view change as movement or adjustment. That something was Way A but now is Way B. I think we will both agree that creation has not always been. That at some point in eternity God created out of nothing. I would say that is a change. That at some point creation was not (way A) and then there was creation (way B). This means that before anything else, when there was only God that God had the ability in His very nature for change. Nothing caused God to create except for an internal desire. So I would say that in God’s nature is an ability or openness to change.

Like postmodernism, maybe I am more process than I like to admit but the line of reasoning above makes sense to me.

I was worried that Open Theism was drawing on the human view of love and relationship and applying it to God without accounting for the vast difference between His nature and our own.My response – The weak answer is: well what else do we have to use? I am willing to say that our view of relationship and love may not properly express how God’s own relationship and love with Humanity. But we are stuck with the human concepts and images we have available to us.

I guess what I am struggling to see is how does God’s vast difference in nature from us impacts our ability to have an open and changing relationship with Him. When discussing God’s nature we typically take an attribute and try to express it to the fullest possible meaning for God. God is ALL knowing. God is ALL powerful. God is the OPPOSITE of sin. So when it comes to relationship we would understand God is ALWAYS faithful or ALWAYS loving, but I am not sure how that impacts or informs HOW He has relationships with us. There is a significant difference between His nature and ours but that doesn’t necessarily mean that how He experiences relationships and love is different (at least I don’t think so).

Is it possible that beings with different natures to experience relationships and love the same way? I think so. Maybe we are just coming back to the point if God is changing or not again?


  1. Good responses. I am familiar with the charge that many traditional Christian beliefs (whether Patristic or otherwise) are excessively influenced by Hellenism. It is certainly the case that Hellenistic philosophy and culture should not be viewed as on par with Scripture. I think that the relationship between Hellenism and the emergence of ancient Christian tradition is complex. Please permit me to digress some on this point. The catholicity of the gospel message (and the Church, which proclaims it) reflects the mystery of Christ’s incarnation (absolute transcendence entering into human particularity), which forms the basis of the transformation of all cultures. Elements of Greek thought as well as Hebrew thought (and many others too) have entered into the Church’s lexicon. This phenomenon, a kind of broad inculturation of the gospel message, reflects the eschatological transformation of the world. Our discussion is centering on which language and which words should be included in this lexicon. I’m suggesting that ecumenical consensus must be a determining factor in this decision. Many would disagree with my approach. I realize that it may not be acceptable for all.

  2. I do not have much more to say about analogy. You have aptly pointed out the benefit of thinking of God in relational terms and in light of human relationships. I find value in this as well (we are in agreement here though limitations need to be acknowledged). You highlighted a variety of arguments from an Open Theist perspective on how viewing God’s ontology as “static” is unbiblical or unhelpful. I do not like the term static either because it seems reductionistic and non-relational. I think the problem here though is partially the word itself not the truth it is trying to convey. To say that God is ontologically changeless need not imply that He is somehow less “open to” or capable of relationship with beings like us. I believe that many non-Open Theists embrace the view that God is quite dynamic (personally not ontologically) in His work in our lives. It was on this point that I was concerned that some views in Open Theism might be misappropriating the analogy of human relationship (i.e., assuming God had to change like humans do in order to have authentic relationship). I fear that we may be talking past each other on this point.

  3. When you mentioned biblical materials that might hint at God as changing I listened closely. My response to this point is that such a reading of these texts must take into account the ecumenical, consensual hermeneutic of the ancient churches through till our present day. I am not convinced that what emerges from reading these texts in light of such a consensus will corresponds well with all of the conclusions of Open Theism. This is an important point for me because of my theological commitments and theological method. It may not be an important point for everyone. What is your view? How would you describe your own theological method? If you have a chance I would love to hear your thoughts on an earlier post I submitted to Phil’s blog entitled: “How Much is Sola Really Sola in Relation to Scriptura?”

  4. “It was on this point that I was concerned that some views in Open Theism might be misappropriating the analogy of human relationship (i.e., assuming God had to change like humans do in order to have authentic relationship). I fear that we may be talking past each other on this point.”

    My response – Maybe you could expand a little more on why you feel God is ontologically changeless and yet dynamic personally? I don’t think we are far from each other on this but I agree that we are talking past each other.

  5. Drawing from the patristic understanding of Trinitarian perichoresis, God is relationally dynamic within Himself. The persons of Father, Son, and Spirit are ever loving and serving one another and mutually indwelling one another. This is a dynamic type of existence that is relational. It is not dynamic in the sense that it involves ontological change (this is my understanding of the patristic consensus). The three persons will always retain their distinct identities (and mutual divine, transcendent nature), though love is eternally shared between then. When humanity and creation are invited into this relationship of love, each of the Trinitarian persons has a unique role to play: Christ redeems us, the Spirit indwells, empowers, and sanctifies us, and the Father adopts us into His kingdom family. They work together dynamically and relationally in brining this about. They even invite humanity to participate in the process (see the use of sunergein in 2 Cor. 6:1). I would like to hear how useful you find the concept of pericohresis to be. How do you view it in relation to God’s ontology? How would you view it in relationship to ecclesiology or anthropology? From my perspective, perichoresis is an important concept to consider when seeking to define God’s dynamism, relationality, and transcendence.

  6. I believe we are in agreement. I (and other open theists) would say that God is changeless/static in nature and being but dynamic in experience. God is always loving, but that love is not always expressed the same way.

    When I say that I believe God to be relational, it is not bcause of His interactions with humanity (even though that does inform it). It is because of His necessary nature. I believe God to be relational because I believe Him to be triune. Even before creation God was giving and taking inside Himself with the three persons of the trinity.

    So you can imagine that your description of perichoresis fits comfortably for me.

    Is your primary reason for not being an open theists yourself because it is too different from traditional expressions of God?

  7. Hello Dan, I’m sorry for taking so long to respond to your last comment. I wanted to reflect a bit more in order to put my finger on why exactly I choose a more traditional Wesleyan view to that of Open Theism. For me there needs to be unity between God’s ontology and His Triune Personhoods. If His ontology is static (unchanging, outside of time, transcendent) and His Triune Personhoods are (perichoretic, relational, capable of authentic relationship with humans) then the union of these must preserve all of the aforementioned qualities. I know that it may seem that I am trying to have it both ways: affirming a view of God as transcendent, yet immanent and relational at the same time. I recognize that this is a difficulty, but there are many difficulties (from a purely rationalistic point of view) in the Christian faith. How do we really explain the mystery of Three Persons in One Essence as in the Trinity or of One Person with two natures as in the incarnation? These are mysteries as I’m sure you would agree. I feel that the more traditional Wesleyan view preserves a healthy sense of mystery by not seeking to define (too extensively) how God can be relational and transcendent at the same time. From my perspective, Open Theism goes further in describing this mystery by situating God’s relationality within a framework of dynamic change (akin to some approaches in process theology or panentheism). This framework, in my opinion, undervalues God’s ontological transcendence. The hermeneutic that underlies this approach seems to me to be discontinuous with the ancient, ecumenical consensus. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding the nuances of Open Theism’s account of God’s ontology. Please feel free to respond with more info from your own understanding of the discussion.