Theology for the Long Haul

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Dan Smitley: Response I

First, to what extent do our linguistic frameworks for describing the mysteries of God's nature clarify or obscure a right understanding of Him?

Dan’s response – Linguistic frameworks can certainly obscure our ability to speak to each other about God, but I would not say that my framework (or yours) are able to more accurately describe the mysteries of God.

Maybe I am too postmodern for my own good but I tend to believe that we each have a unique perspective on God (linguistic frameworks) that both clarifies and obscures the mysteries of God. So I do not think that my framework is the perfect framework for understanding God’s mysteries. However, I do believe it is the perfect framework for me and I believe it can help others connect with God in a much more intimate way. I certainly am not asking for everyone to subscribe to my framework, I am just hoping it helps others’ put words to their own spiritual development.

Second, are there some basic, foundational truths related to this topic that form a type of consensus among many Christian traditions (ancient and modern)? Dan’s respose – I think an easy starting point is that God is relational and that God is love. I would also say that a typical consensus is that God is all powerful and that God is all knowing. However, there is obviously disagreements on how we understand those concepts.

Maybe you could propose some?

I wondered if he sees open theism as understanding itself primarily outside of the categories of the traditional debate on this issue (Calvin and Augustine vis-à-vis Arminius, Wesley, John Cassian, and other Greek fathers) or in some type of continuity with them?

Dan’s response – I think most Open Theists (myself included) see their approach as development out of a traditional Wesleyan-Arminian understanding. I think it’s fairly easy to look through reform thinking and see how Calvin, Luther, Aquinas, Augustine, etc had similar ideas but never identical. I often find people picking a little of this and a little of that from different reformed fathers but still consider themselves in the “reform camp”. In the same way Open Theists acknowledge they are outside of the traditional Arminian understanding but they still see that as “their camp”.

I have been hearing about a “big tent” a lot more recently. The idea is simply that we can have disagreements in X Camp but still acknowledge we are in the same tent. Whether that be “X” be Christianity as a whole, Wesleyan-Holiness, Wesleyan-Arminian, or whatever the hope is that we can have “unity through diversity.”

What do representatives of open theism make of traditional explanations (from other Christian traditions) of God’s capacity to love human beings?

Dan’s response – I might be missing the question, and if so I apologize. I don’t think there is a unique understanding to open theism about “God’s capacity to love human beings.” The disagreement normally comes in our ability to respond to that love or our ability to return that love.

It seems to me that how this questions is answered will determine the extent to which open theism will enter into the larger Christian tradition or become a passing fad.

Dan’s response­ – This is one thing I have loved about open theists (more specifically Clark Pinnock) approach the conversation. They acknowledge they are the new kids on the block and they acknowledge this might simply be a fad. However, for them this understanding of God has been hugely personally and critical to their development of theology. So while they believe they are rooted in a strong Christian tradition (ie. Arminianism) they realize this may not be for Christianity today and might just fade away.

A rejection of open theism (I think) has more to do with the Christian environment the believer finds themselves in and not necessarily how wrong open theism might be.

We must also recognize that we cannot fully understand God’s capacity to love us in light of our own capacity to love (ours is subjective and changing) because His own being and nature is not identical to our own (even if we do bear His image).

Dan’s response ­­- Amen! All open theists (that I know) would agree that we cannot fully comprehend God and His love. Some are willing to go further than others in attempting to define God’s loving nature, but all would agree that God is not like us and there will always be parts of theology that come down to mystery.

While I acknowledge that we cannot “fully understand God’s capacity to love us in light of our own capacity to love” I do not think that means we have nothing to say. We speak in analogy, yes, but that analogy still has truth… it still means something. Yes our relationships do not describe God’s relationship to us perfectly but that doesn’t mean we cannot glimpse His love and relationship with us in them. Surely we can agree that “the bride of Christ” has truth it in even if it doesn’t completely describe the church. Or that when God was saying that Israel was His unfaithful wife that it wasn’t identical to the relationship He had with them, and yet still announced a truth of that relationship. Our love and relationships cannot properly articulate God’s love, but I think we can still say something about that love.


  1. I want to make one more comment about the linguistic aspect and then I will move on, as I realize that this is not the crux of the discussion.
    Coming from a more un-postmodern perspective, I do think that one Christian's linguistic framework/beliefs can be closer to the reality of God than another's. This can be due to the sanctification process in each person's life, or simply a greater degree of God-given revelation or wisdom. Simply put, some people see Christ more clearly as His life is "formed" in them, through the Holy Spirit and the Word of God.
    This gives us a greater task as Believers. Rather than state that our beliefs are helpful to us as individuals but may/may not be helpful for others, we have to come to the table with the acknowledgement that we think the other to be in the wrong, while maintaining love and respect in relationship. This is supremely difficult, as our pride naturally causes us to want to distance ourselves from those that have the audacity to hold their beliefs in higher opinion than ours.
    This is a bunny-trail, so thank you for allowing me to take it.

  2. I agree that some people may be closer to the reality of God. However, I do not think any of us can objectively say who/which view is the closer one. We can subjectively say it but we are all tainted by our context and what we feel is correct.

  3. Corinne and Dan, I see both of your points, and I think you have stated them clearly. For me, what it comes down to is what I am prepared to be responsible to God for. Ultimately, we will all give an answer as to how we fulfilled our responsibilities to those whom God has placed under our care and influence. In order to do that, we must believe we are right… at least enough to joyfully bear the responsibility. I also believe this can be done, without judging (especially the motives of) others. That said, we all have something to learn from one another. As the psalmist well stated: "As Iron sharpens iron so one man sharpens another." Ps. 27:17