Founders Journal

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Book Review

The Openness of God. A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God, by Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, David Basinger; Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1994. 202 pp. Paperback $14.99.

Reviewed by Dr. Roger Nicole

This volume constitutes a frontal attack on the Reformed conception of God as expressed in its confessions of faith and in its orthodox theologians. It also challenges the Lutheran view, particularly Luther's and the Missouri Synod's; the evangelical Arminian position, advocated in multifarious denominations; the traditional Roman Catholic view, notably Augustine's and his followers; the Eastern Orthodox position; not to speak of some non-Christian religions, notably Islam. One could not, therefore, fault the authors for lacking courage, not to speak of audacity.

The attack is carried on a five-fold front as follows:

Richard Rice
John Sanders
Clark Pinnock
William Hasker
David Basinger
Biblical Support
Historical Considerations
Systematic Theology
Philosophical Perspective
Practical Implications

It may be noted that only the first chapter corresponds to the subtitle, "A Biblical Challenge to the traditional understanding of God." After that only Pinnock has some Biblical references (13) in this text, and I discovered none in the footnotes, except one reference of Sanders to Philo's view of Ex. 3:14, which he rejects. The Biblical underpinning of these four chapters and the 309 footnotes that document them is surely paltry.

The basic contention of the book can be best displayed in the form of contrasting columns.

Traditional Reformed View Openness View
God is sovereign and controls everything in
the created world, including the actions of
responsible agents.

God's power embraces the whole universe,
yet not so as to do "violence to the will of the
creatures."

God's knowledge embraces all things possible,
and specifically all that comes to pass. It
includes eternal knowledge of the future
actions and decisions of free agents.

God has an eternal plan which will surely
come to pass. For Him there is no surprise
and no disappointment.


Predictive prophecy is based on God's
exhaustive knowledge and will certainly be
realized.





God's plan is immutable even as God's
nature. Therefore expressions that speak of God
repenting must be seen as metaphorical.

The power of prayer is viewed as a second
cause important in the fulfillment of God's
design, even as other second causes are
instrumental in this way. Prayer changes things,
but it does not change God's mind.

God is impassable in the sense that He is
not, as human beings, susceptible to the upheaval
of emotions. He is not impassive, for the
scripture represents Him as compassionate.

God's love, that marvelous expression of His
being, cannot be interpreted in abstraction of
other perfections: holiness, justice, holy
loathing of sin, Satan and unredeemed rebels.

God's predestination is that gracious
provision whereby, out of His goodness and mercy,
he has chosen a multitude out of a sinful and
rebellious race, and has appointed them to
receive and accept the full benefits of His
salvation, provided for them in the work of
Christ and applied to them in due time by the
Holy Spirit.

Those non-elected are inevitably to suffer
the consequences of Adam's and their own sinful
rebellion and will be forever separated from
God.
God's sovereignty has been self-limited by
virtue of the creation of free agents.


God's power stops where human will begins
and God Himself has established this
self-limitation.

God's knowledge is self-limited, because
foreknowledge of the actions of free agents would
evidence that they are not free.
 

God's plan has a multitude of blanks due to
the unforeseen actions or decisions of free
agents, God's greatness is manifest in that He is
able to cope with anything that turns up.

Prophecy is based on God's educated guesses
as to what will happen, and it is often
conditional upon some activities or decisions of
free agents. This conditionality is not always
expressed in connection with prophecy, promise or
warning. Hence, the appearance of nonfulfillment.
Cf. the history of Jonah and Nineveh.

God is constantly ready to adjust His plans
to circumstances. If plan A fails, He shifts to
plan B!!

Prayer is an effectual activity whereby
angels and humans can function as God's
counselors and change His mind.



God's being is rocked by emotions of joy and
sadness. This is essential for His Trinitarian
personhood.


God's love is the supreme perfection of God
and all other characterizations must be
envisioned, and if necessary reinterpreted, in
terms of our understanding of that love.

God's predestination does not relate to
individuals: it is God's blessing upon those,
whoever they might be, who repent and believe on
their own initiative. It is also at times God's
appointment for service.




God is too merciful to keep any one in
eternal torment. Those not saved will simply
cease to exist.


The methodology that leads to these conclusions is radically at variance with the Reformed faith-a faith that Professor Pinnock himself embraced some 25 years ago. It may be summed up in two basic premises:

1. Nothing that appears incompatible to our reason can be accepted as true. We have no right to appeal to mystery or antinomies when we are faced with propositions which we cannot harmonize.

2. Taking a firm stand in the notion of human freedom as based on the reality of the possibility of a contrary choice, we may proceed to understand God and His revelation only insofar as we perceive the compatibility of what we think of Him with our fundamental premise. Anything else must be ruthlessly eliminated.

Church History, of course, gives us warnings as to the impact of this methodology, for this was precisely the path followed by Pelagius and his followers. This is also the premise of the Socinians at the time of the Reformation. This is at the root of the anthropocentrism that is the common feature of liberalism. These examples should have sufficed for giving more restraint to the five authors.

The book has been the object of an interesting reaction by four scholars in the pages of Christianity Today (Jan. 9, 1995, pp. 30-33). One of these, Professor Roger Olson appears to me much too supportive, even though he sees a problem in a self-limiting God and in the accuracy of prophecy if God does not know the future. The other three, Prof. Douglas Kelly, Dean Timothy George and Prof. Alistair McGrath are very sharply critical.

Without repeating the strictures they have taken I wish to state the following:

  1. This view ruins the reality of prophecy as well as the significance of God's promises. How could God possibly know that Judas would betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, when the payment and acceptance of such a sum were dependent upon unforeseeable decisions of the chief priests and of Judas?

  2. This view makes prayer to God for the conversion of sinners to be misdirected. God can do nothing more than He has already done and the matter rests wholly with the sinners.

  3. How could God envision the death of Christ before the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:20; Revelation 13:8; 17:8) when He presumably did not yet know whether Adam would fall or not?

  4. How could God sincerely envision to destroy all Israel except Moses' family, of the tribe of Levi, when He had long decades before announced through Jacob a future for the 12 tribes (Genesis 49) utterly at variance with such a course?

  5. How could God foresee what would happen to Jesus on earth, when it was not even certain whether he might sin or not? How could old man Simeon know more than God? Should we not take the statement of the landowner in the parable of the unworthy tenants "They will respect my son" (Mt. 21:37) as indicative of God's expectation? If not, why are we permitted to take this passage metaphorically?

  6. In fact, I feel so confident of the clear message of the Bible that I am ready to challenge any one to read the Scripture from Genesis to Revelation within two weeks and then to come up with this idea of a self-limited God! Ps. 115:3 has expressed the impact better than I could do: "Our God is in heaven: he does whatever pleases him."

  7. The proper understanding of the Reformed faith does not deny but includes the reality of the responsible decisions of rational agents, angels and humans. The fact that we do not fully comprehend how sovereignty and responsible agency relate to one another does not give us the right to deny either, or to say that one who holds one of these is obliged to deny or circumvent the other.

  8. What gives the authors the right to counsel God in their prayers? What do they know that God does not know? (Is. 40:13; Rom. 11:34) Frankly I would sooner abandon the inestimable privilege of prayer than to think that God may want to consult some people from Rochester, Riverside, Huntington, Hamilton or Bemidji, or even Orlando, in order to determine His actions.

  9. While some strongly evangelical authors have at times been quoted, the statements that are supportive of this book's thesis are predominantly gathered from neo-orthodox or liberal writers whose agreement would not necessarily constitute a great asset in the mind of an evangelical reader.

  10. It is not very difficult to foresee whither these people will move, if they carry out the logic of their own position. They will soon abandon the Christian doctrine of original sin, because it will be seen as incompatible with the free will of every human being entering this world (cf. Pelagius). The next logical step is to renounce substitutionary penal atonement, as has frequently happened in liberalism and even in Arminianism. When the atonement is gone there is no great need to maintain the deity of Christ, and when that is gone one usually unloads the doctrine of the Trinity. Then one is on an equal footing with Socinianism, which is the last step prior to the total demise of Christianity.

    In the other direction, the allurement of Process Theology, which the present authors are eager to ward off, will undoubtedly exercise some power on their minds. When one reads this book one gets the impression time and again that some pages were written by John Hick.

  11. I am not so much alarmed by the book The Openness of God, or the advocacy of such views by some who were giving signs of heterodoxy for some time as I am by the openness of Intervarsity Press, established to articulate and defend the evangelical faith, in publishing such a work.

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