[Paleopsych] CHE: Can God See the Future?
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Mon Jan 10 22:54:13 UTC 2005
Can God See the Future?
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4.11.26
Some evangelical scholars are taking worldly heat for suggesting that
divine knowledge has its limits
By BURTON BOLLAG
God knows everything that will ever happen. That is the majority view
among evangelical Christians. But in recent years a few scholars at
evangelical institutions have proposed a radically different view:
There is no divine script for the future, they say. Free will plays a
The debate over the scholars' ideas has taken on such fervor that last
month an evangelical college told one of its professors, a believer in
free will, to leave.
The fired professor, John E. Sanders, at Huntington College in
Indiana, is a leading proponent of an approach known as Open Theism,
which declares that God and humans with their free will together
determine the future.
Bruce A. Ware, senior associate dean of the School of Theology at the
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and an ardent opponent of Open
Theism, says the controversy is of much more than scholarly interest.
By rejecting the notion of a supreme being who knows or has even
planned the whole future, he says, "Open Theism undermines people's
confidence in God." It "makes God pathetic."
Other theologians see the debate over Open Theism as a proxy for a
struggle over who will lead the evangelical movement
-- free-will-believing liberals or old-fashioned Calvinists. As the
debate has spread, a number of evangelical institutions, including the
six seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention, have started to
require faculty members to sign statements saying that they believe in
God's complete knowledge of the future. The statements are intended to
keep out supporters of Open Theism.
But the idea's impact is spreading beyond the walls of evangelical
seminaries. "For philosophers who speculate about God, it has breathed
new life into the debate," says Kelly James Clark, a professor of
philosophy at Calvin College and secretary-treasurer of the Society of
An Old Controversy
In other branches of Christianity, arguments over free will and
omniscience have been conducted for many centuries. During the Middle
Ages and the Protestant Reformation, theologians risked more than
their jobs when they found themselves on the wrong side of a
theological dispute. It was not uncommon for trials on charges of
doctrinal deviations to involve torture of the accused and their
subsequent burning at the stake.
Theologians and philosophers in the three great monotheistic
religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, have long debated the
proper balance between belief in an all-powerful deity and in human
free will. St. Augustine, the 4th-century Latin church father;
al-Ashari, the 10th-century Islamic theologian; Maimonides, the
medieval Jewish philosopher; and John Calvin, the Protestant reformer,
all grappled with the issue. All of them argued in favor of God's
The scientific revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, and
particularly Darwin's theory of evolution, profoundly influenced the
debate. Darwinism led many theologians to move away from a more
literal reading of the Bible and to reject the concept of a God with
absolute power over the physical and human worlds.
Process theology, developed in the first half of the 20th century
under the influence of works by the English mathematical logician
Alfred North Whitehead and others, views God as involved with
humankind in a continuous, dynamic process. The idea has much in
common with Open Theism but approaches the issue from a philosophical
standpoint that transcends Christianity. Open Theism's proponents say
their approach emerged from a close, evangelical reading of the Bible.
The Holocaust provided a new jolt to traditional thinking about God's
omniscience, as theologians grappled with the question of what kind of
deity would stand by and allow such horrors to happen.
Indeed, the problem of evil has always been central to the debate.
Those proclaiming God's infinite power must answer why God's plan
contains such atrocities. Those theologians who envision a God who has
granted free will to humanity find the explanation for such evils not
in God, but in humankind's sinfulness.
Despite the tension between free will and God's power, most branches
of Christianity have little problem accommodating both concepts today.
"Most of the rest of the Protestant world would agree that the future
is open and depends to a varying extent on free will," says Matthew S.
Collins, a New Testament scholar and a senior official of the Society
of Biblical Literature, which brings together scholars from a wide
range of theological orientations.
John F. Haught, a professor of theology at Georgetown University, says
contemporary Roman Catholic theologians have generally come down on
the side of free will. "The Catholic interpretation takes the Bible
very seriously," he says, "but not so literally."
For Christian evangelicals, however, the battle over the extent of
divine foreknowledge remains fierce. "I'm a Calvinist," says Mr. Ware,
the Southern Baptist dean. "I hold that God has absolute control and
has decided everything that will happen."
Even the Holocaust? Yes, says Mr. Ware, but that doesn't mean that his
deity is a monster. Injustice will be punished, he insists. Whether in
this life or the next, "people are all held accountable before God."
A New Approach
Open Theism represents one of the most serious challenges to the
doctrine of the evangelical movement in decades.
In the 1980s several works promoting Open Theism appeared, although
that label was not yet used. Then, in 1994, a book with the writings
of five evangelical scholars was published by InterVarsity Press, a
major evangelical academic publisher, under the title, The Openness of
God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God.
"It took everyone by surprise," says Mr. Ware, and the book was so
influential that "Open Theism was the de facto topic" of each year's
annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society from then until
last year. With 2,060 full members, the group is the main association
of biblical scholars at America's roughly 400 evangelical colleges,
seminaries, and Bible schools.
As the controversy grew, a number of evangelical institutions became
caught up in the debate. In the mid-1990s Bethel College (now Bethel
University), in St. Paul, came under strong pressure from the Baptist
General Conference, which controls the institution, to dismiss Gregory
A. Boyd, a professor of theology who was another leading proponent of
A committee set up by the college concluded in 1998 that Mr. Boyd's
writings did not violate Baptist doctrine, and the institution decided
not to dismiss him. But in a concession to the conservatives, Bethel's
president, George K. Brushaber, promised not to hire any other Open
Theism supporters. Mr. Boyd has since left Bethel to pursue a career
as a writer and a minister in an evangelical church.
James H. Barnes III, Bethel's provost, says of the experience, "We had
an incredible theological dialogue on campus that could not have been
manufactured if we had wanted it."
"But," he adds, "it was a draining experience."
Meanwhile, the Evangelical Theological Society encouraged a thorough
debate of the new approach, holding a panel discussion soon after the
seminal book appeared, during which the authors and their opponents
struggled over the issues.
One of the points debated was the understanding of biblical passages
in which God is surprised by events, or in which he is persuaded to
change a decision.
In the Book of Exodus, for example, God decides to destroy the Hebrews
when they turn away from him and worship a golden calf. Moses, with
apparent success, pleads with God to relent. "So the Lord changed His
mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people," says the
For Open Theists, such texts, in which events unfold through an
unscripted give-and-take between God and humanity, must be taken
seriously. Conservatives respond that the deity was, in effect, only
playing with Moses.
"You can't take this at face value," says Mr. Ware of the troublesome
passages. In each case, he insists, "God knew the outcome all along."
At its 2001 annual meeting, the society began the final move against
what many members view as heresy. After discussing numerous papers
-- some 30 presentations were against Open Theism and only 3 supported
it -- the society passed a resolution reaffirming the majority's view:
"We believe the Bible clearly teaches that God has complete, accurate,
and infallible knowledge of all events past, present, and future."
The resolution passed with 70-percent support. A larger number of
members certainly agreed with it, but some were uncomfortable with
what they saw as the beginning of an effort to expel the dissidents.
Edwin M. Yamauchi, a professor of ancient history at Miami University,
in Ohio, who is now the society's vice president, said at the time
that if the supporters of Open Theism were excluded, "we will be a
more orthodox society, but we will be a poorer society."
At the 2002 meeting, one of the society's founding members, the
retired Swiss-born theologian Roger Nicole, declared Open Theism "a
cancer on the soul" of the group and called for the expulsion of two
of the movement's key proponents. The society decided to investigate
whether the two had violated the group's original, doctrinal
statement, which asserts the "inerrant" nature of the Bible. (The
statement does not directly address the issue of divine
foreknowledge.) Their accusers said the two dissidents had denied the
truth of biblical passages proclaiming God's full knowledge of future
Each man was examined on the basis of what was considered his most
flagrant denial of the society's doctrine. For Clark H. Pinnock, a
prominent professor of theology who was only months from retirement at
McMaster Divinity College, in Hamilton, Ontario, the charges dealt
with his book Most Moved Mover (Baker Academic, 2001). John E.
Sanders, a midcareer faculty member at Indiana's evangelical
Huntington College, was examined on the basis of his The God Who Risks
(InterVarsity Press, 1998).
A Personal Journey
For Mr. Sanders, the road to Open Theism began when he was in high
school and only nominally Christian. The death of his brother in a
motorcycle accident led him to begin thinking deeply about religion.
People tried to comfort him by explaining that the accident was part
of God's plan. "I said, 'So God killed my brother so I would become a
Christian?' They'd say, 'Oh, no, it's not like that.' But there was a
Mr. Sanders, who gradually became a committed evangelical, began
developing a position that refused to see all events as ordained ahead
of time by God. "An 'openness' view says humans are incredibly
responsible for what happens," he says. "If a mudslide occurs in
Colombia, well, God doesn't just zap manna to the people. He expects
us to manifest Christian values and help the people."
Mr. Pinnock agrees. "If the future is determined now, then what's the
meaning of our lives?" he asks. "Where's the drama?"
After 10 months of written communications and preparations, the
society's nine-member executive committee called the two accused
scholars to a daylong examination in October 2003 at a meeting room in
a Best Western Hotel in Chicago. Mr. Ware, the theology dean, assisted
Mr. Nicole in presenting the case against the two dissidents.
Despite the passions the controversy had ignited, the tone of the
meeting remained courteous. "They weren't mean," says Mr. Pinnock.
"They were sincere about looking for the boundaries of
At the end of the day, Mr. Pinnock made a surprise announcement. He
told the committee that he was willing to change the wording of a long
footnote in his book that the group found particularly objectionable.
The footnote pointed to a half-dozen biblical prophecies that do not
appear to have come true. The changed version waters down that
For example, in the first Book of Thessalonians, Paul predicts the
second coming of Christ in his lifetime. (The society's members agree
that this did not happen, and that Jesus Christ has yet to return to
earth and install the kingdom of God.) "His word was, however,
perfectly appropriate," wrote Mr. Pinnock in his revised footnote,
"given the fact that Paul thought that the coming could come at any
To the thinking of James A. Borland, a faculty member at the Rev.
Jerry Falwell's Liberty University and the Evangelical Theological
Society's secretary-treasurer, Mr. Pinnock had "recanted."
Mr. Pinnock sees it differently. "It wasn't a big change," he says.
"It seemed to me an easy way to satisfy them."
It did. At its 2003 annual meeting, the following month, the society
voted by a large margin not to expel Mr. Pinnock, and by the smallest
of margins not to expel Mr. Sanders, who had offered no concessions to
The society's decision not to expel the two men was viewed as
inappropriate leniency by some members. Norman L. Geisler, president
of the Southern Evangelical Seminary and a former president of the
theological society, resigned from the group in protest.
"Before my own eyes," he says, "I saw an organization I belonged to go
down the tubes and officially approve a view which denies the
infallible foreknowledge of God."
Yet while conservatives failed to get Mr. Sanders removed from the
society, they are forcing him from his faculty job of seven years at
Huntington. Last month the college's president, G. Blair Dowden, told
a stunned faculty meeting that pressure from the United Brethren
Church and the prospect of falling enrollments had become too much to
resist. Mr. Sanders, he said, would have to leave.
Mr. Dowden says he was not happy with the decision, which was made by
the Board of Trustees. He acknowledges that the move could be a blow
to academic freedom.
Yet a few evangelical churches and seminaries, including some in the
Pentecostal and Methodist traditions, are receptive to Open Theism.
John E. Phelan Jr. is president and dean of North Park University's
Theological Seminary, which is controlled by the Evangelical Covenant
Church of America, a fast-growing denomination of more than 750
congregations across the United States and Canada.
He has invited both Mr. Pinnock and Mr. Boyd to speak on the campus
and says he would not hesitate to hire other supporters of Open
The seminary does not officially support Open Theism, says Mr. Phelan,
but he feels that the approach makes an important contribution to
"There is a lot of sloppy language used by people," he says. "I would
personally like our students and scholars to think more clearly about
what it means when you say something was 'God's will.'"
As for the fight over Open Theism, Mr. Phelan sees it as "a subtext
for a larger struggle going on in evangelicalism," over whether its
leaders will adhere to more-conservative Calvinism or more-liberal
strains of Christianity.
For his part, Mr. Ware, of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary,
says most members of the Evangelical Theological Society are just
happy that the consuming debate over whether to expel the two members
has been settled, and that the group can move on to other things. At
the same time, he worries that Open Theism itself is spreading.
"Scholars have said pretty much everything they will" on the subject,
he says. "Now it is moving outside the scholarly world, down into the
TWO BIBLICAL PASSAGES IN QUESTION
In a dialogue on the sinfulness and impotence of idol worship, the
Lord asserts, through Isaiah, the knowledge of all things past,
present, and future and the power to intervene freely in the world:
"I am God, and there is no one like Me
Declaring the end from the beginning
And from ancient times things which have not been done. ..."
In Moses' absence, the Israelites have fashioned a golden calf to
worship. In response to God's threat to unleash his wrath upon them
for this sacrilege, Moses reminds the Lord of his promises to Abraham
and Isaac. God then decides he will not destroy the Israelites:
"Then Moses entreated the LORD his God ... So the LORD changed His
mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people."
(Exodus 32:11, 14)
SOURCE: New American Standard Bible
[I had to correct this. The article said Exodus 3. And the King James
Bible should have been used instead of a translation.]
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