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Theodicy and Openness Theology

Some time ago I made a few remarks on Dr. William Dembski’s article, Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science (last accessed 3/4/07). I think it’s a wonderfully well-written article, though I disagree with his conclusions. I’m going to discuss this article a bit more, but first I want to cover one or two points (in separate posts) that are peripheral. The first one is Dembski’s treatment of openness theology. In general, Dembski is quite fair to his opponents in this article, but I think he misses the boat just a bit on dealing with openness theology, as one generally does when one attributes motivation to other people’s beliefs.

The entire section to which I want to respond is contained in a single paragraph on page 34 of the essay, starting with this:

The overwhelming reason for truncating divine foreknowledge in current theological discussion (especially among openness and process theologians) is to assist in the task of theodicy.

This misses the point somewhat. I certainly did not come to favor openness theology because I needed it for theodicy. In fact, I regard theodicy as a generally doomed business. Theodicy has proven useless to me. When I watched my 17 year old son die after a five year fight with cancer, it was not any principled theodicy that kept my spiritual life alive. It was simple experience of the presence of God, even around the time of death. God is whatever God is.

No, the problem for me is that there is simply a gap between God as portrayed in different passages of scripture and even the God I experience. I don’t mean that my experience of God challenges scripture. In fact, one of my major reasons for accepting the authority of the Bible is kind of in reverse. The God that I experience in prayer, meditation, and worship, is so effectively described by the vocabulary of the Bible, that I have to accept the probability that my experience is similar to the Biblical writers.

In fact, my personal experience of God is fractured in similar was to what a surface reading of many Bible passages presents. Without going into great detail, one needs to reconcile the God who “declares the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10) is “the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow” (Hebrews 13:8) and yet “if a nation will turn from its evil, he will change his mind/relent” (Jeremiah 18:1-11). Many of us have become so theologically adept, whether we’re theologians or not, that we can reconcile those texts without thinking, bring the meaning of each into line with our theology.

Similarly my personal experience of God goes through times of absolute sovereignty in which I feel carried forward without choice, and yet at other times places at which God allows me broad freedom. If my concept of God is too narrow for this experience, how likely is it to be broad enough for an actual infinite God who is the ground of all being?

For openness theologians in general, and for me in particular, reconciliations of these aspects seem somewhat shallow, and seem to truncate one concept or another. The Bible speaks of humans having choices with consequences, consequences that would be different had humans behaved in a different manner. God repents frequently. In the book of Jonah, the prediction is that Nineveh will be destroyed in 40 days. The people repent, and God repents. God’s grace is given priority over at least the appearance of his foreknowledge.

Thus my motivation in exploring openness theology is more an effort to give full weight to all of these aspects of scripture and personal experience of God in my theology. I have never seen free will or such broader approaches as openness as all that helpful. In the end, God created absolutely everything, good and bad, whether he did so directly as in special creation or indirectly as in an evolutionary model. If God is the ground of all being–a definition I like–then all chains of causation lead back to God, and all things happen because God wanted the universe to be that way. This remains true whether he limits his foreknowledge or not.

In such theodicies, a limited God is absolved from having to remove evils for the simple reason that he is incapable of removing them.

Well, no, not really. In such theologies God would be incapable of creating logical inconsistencies in the universe. Thus the finite beings cannot simultaneously have full freedom and yet be restricted from being evil. I recall interviewing Dr. Richard Rice, one proponent of openness theology a few years back for a conference on the Religion Forum, and he commented that it was not that God could not know everything, but that he chose to create the universe in such a way that he would not know everything. (I lost the transcript of that talk, so that is from memory, but I believe it is an accurate representation.)

But why engage in such theodicies at all? No sound arguments show that divine foreknowledge is logically incoherent. To argue against God knowing future contingent propositions invariably involves questionable assumptions about how the world, though created by God, might nonetheless impede God’s knowledge of the future.

Except that what is actually argued is that God impedes his own knowledge of the future. Now I have not read every exposition by openness theologians, and I imagine there are those who would limit God in the way Dembski describes, but that is not a necessary component of openness theology. Openness theology would best be expressed, in my view, solely as God’s approach to interaction with this finite universe. It’s a way in which various possibilities have been reconciled in the finite, when in the infinite they had no need of such reconciliation.

Further, I think that the coherence of free will and foreknowledge is quite illusory. William Lane Craig’s lengthy exposition to the contrary notwithstanding, I would still regard a fixed future as incompatible with free will. That’s a long discussion in itself, however, so I will hold with just the assertion at this point.

Moreover, divine foreknowledge does not preclude human freedom. If God foreknows what I shall choose, then I shall not choose otherwise. It doesn’t follow, however, that I can’t choose otherwise. As William Lane Craig puts it, “my freely chosen actions . . . supply the truth conditions for the future contingent propositions known by God.”62 In contrast to theodicies that attempt to justify God’s goodness/benevolence by looking to divine limitation, I’m going to argue that full divine foreknowledge of future contingent propositions is indispensable to a theodicy that preserves the traditional understanding of the Fall (i.e., one that traces all evil in the world back to human sin). [Citations in this passage are from from William Lane Craig. I reproduce footnote 59: William Lane Craig, “Divine Foreknowledge and Newcomb’s Paradox,” Philosophia 17 (1987): 331-350, available online at http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/newcomb.html (last accessed January 12, 2006). Access date is Dr. Dembski’s.]

Here we see, I believe another example of the type of reconciliation I’m talking about. For Dembski, preserving a traditional understanding of the fall is important, and thus he looks for a reconciliation of the various elements that includes that traditional understanding. I believe that he operates in a way that is very similar to the openness theologians, and for that matter to most everyone else, in that he sees a number of teachings in scripture and hopes to provide an overarching theory that will account for them all. I have no problem with that. I simply point out that others are operating on the same motivation, and not simply moving the boundary markers in order to make themselves feel better about God.

One option at all times is to reexamine our understanding of any particular point in the light of whatever evidence we have available. This means that the ideas of free will, of sovereignty, of evil, and yes, the traditional understanding of the fall can be examined again and again as we try to reconcile the various pieces of information available to us. There is no God-given general theory of divine sovereignty and human will. That is something we have to look for.

In addition, we have to look at the sources. One difference between various approaches to theodicy is sources. What weight is given to scriptural statements over observations of the natural world? I would have to say, for example, that an observation of the history of life on this planet creates an interesting question about the God who “sees a sparrow fall” (Matthew 10:29) and the God who permits “survival of the fittest” as the driving force in the diversity of life.

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  1. I fail to see any contradictions here. If God is the creator, then He stands outside of time. Questions about foreknowledge are therefore meaningless. There is no divine limitation because God’s action is necessarily of a different character from our “reality.”

    Thus, there is no contradiction between free will and God’s foreknowledge of the damned and elect; nor does it follow that God has damned anyone because He know who will reject the rescue He has offered through Jesus.

  2. It’s interesting that this is a topic on which people can generate blank looks from one another very easily. I certainly know the standard explanations, but frankly that explanation sounds to me like “I have no clue how, but it must work this way.” That’s OK as an explanation, if you must, but I don’t think it gives adequate credit to those scriptures that speak as though God was interacting with history.

    I’ll discuss that more before I’m done responding to Dembski’s article which touches on all these points much more closely elsewhere than in the one paragraph I was responding to here.

    I must add that while I’m not comfortable with the combination of foreknowledge and free will, many very intelligent people are (William Lane Craig being one), so I’m not trying to put anyone down on this. If you haven’t worked through WLC on time travel, you haven’t live. 🙂 His article God, Time, and Eternity touches on it. But it’s a whole chapter in one of his books, and I’m drawing a blank on which one. Lousy memory. I’m going to google a bit.

    OK, actual on Amazon.com. It may have been Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time, but I wasn’t thinking of a whole book, but of a chapter in a broader work on apologetics. Probably pressing the “Add Comment” button will bring it back!

  3. I believe this is a very important, and currently hotly debated issue.

    I was an open-theist before I ever heard of the term. The reason for this was both my personal experience, and the way I always understood and interpreted scriptures. I was confused by the teachings of Calvinism and Arminianism, since Calvinism seemed unrealistic but consistent, and Arminianism seemed realistic but inconsistent(I can go into a lengthy discussion about why I believe this is so, but it is suffice to say that this is what I believe about these two positions – at that stage I was not yet introduced to any other school of thought)

    I agree that the reason for open-theism is not theodicy, but rather that it seems to best fit biblical text. The reason I say best fit is because there are texts that seem to contradict open theism. This does not mean that open theism crumbles, as any ‘theism’ have a difficult time to explain every single biblical text verse. I do believe however that the problem of evil is a very relevant question in today’s atheist/christian debate (I have not heard one debate where the problem of evil was not heavily focused on).

    I do not presume that open theists have every single doctrine pinned down, but I believe it is an important step in the right direction to have livable theology. A hard question to answer for an open theist is whether people will have free will to sin in heaven. Some open theists might argue that we will have no desire to sin, but that would bring into question why that desire was there at the fall (both Satan’s fall and the fall). Judging a position by future possibilities and unknowns is a bit unfair.

    All in all, I enjoyed this article, and thought to give a comment or two. Thank you for providing interesting reading.

    Hans Jansen

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