I open the bible and read a passage like Genesis 15.13 and it is obvious that God knows in advance Israel will serve as slaves to Pharaoh. Further into the Genesis narrative (chapter 41) I read that Pharaoh has a dream and it is obvious that God knows things, in fact God can make things happen. Malachi 3.6 says clearly, “I the Lord, do not change.” I love these portrayals of God. They make it clear that God is sovereign and is actively involved in history. But please, do not call me a classical theist.
I also open the bible to read Exodus 4.24-26 and find that God planned to put Moses “to death.” But Zipporah intervened. The prophet Isaiah tells us that God “expected” his vineyard to produce good grapes and it instead produced worthless ones. The prophet Jeremiah quotes God to say “Perhaps they will listen and everyone will turn from his evil way, that I may repent of the calamity which I am planning to do to them because of the evil of their deeds.” I love portrayals of God that remind me of God’s interest in creation and relationship with his people. But please, do not call me an open theist.
Both classical theists and open theists claim biblical support for their positions. This reminds us of the complications that emerge when we attempt to answer questions the text is not asking. Neither classical theists nor open theists use the bible faithfully when they use it as a manual to support their claims. The bible is clear that to walk in relationship with God is to experience both sovereignty and surprise.
Traditionally the church has always had a diversity of opinion about multiple matters, including the sovereignty of God and the free will of humans. While not all of us have ever agreed with all proposed positions, we have continued to consider these views within orthodoxy. I am puzzled why some think it necessary to think differently about open theism.
Put me on record as saying those who lean towards open theism would benefit from conversation with those who have a stronger view of sovereignty. I also think that classical theists would benefit by being challenged by those who emphasize free will. And we all should allow ourselves to be challenged by biblical texts that raise these questions.
The church will be strengthened by honest conversation about our differences. This becomes very important. Our witness demands that we demonstrate what such conversation looks like to a world that does not talk about different opinions very well. We must be careful not to label something a heresy because it is different than the way we think. It would be preferable and certainly more Christian if we were able to see differences as opportunities for learning to disagree in ways that are in line with what we teach.
The bible is clear that God is in charge. God is aware of our eschatological futures. God has a plan for the world. On these things we can agree. But it is not our place to tell God what specifics God knows or to convince ourselves we have God figured out. Quite frankly, it is difficult to find the God of systematic theology debates very interesting. I prefer the God of the bible who appears to do whatever he wants and who surprises us with the way it is done.
Open theism and classical theism are both attempts to explain God in ways that make sense to the explainer. It is complicated to address something with clarity when it may not be intended for us to be clear about it. That is why we must constantly enter and reenter the muddy waters of the text. Acknowledging we do not know everything that is under the surface. We want to be a people willing to walk into the text and stay there – no matter what happens.
For those who think that to not argue for one side or the other is to settle for contradiction. I submit we should remind ourselves the bible does not appear to be bothered by this. Perhaps we shouldn’t be either.