SANDERS, John, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence.

Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1998. 366 pages, inc. Footnotes, Bibliography, Index of topics & Scriptures.

Reviewed by Robert Brow       December 1999

This superb work of model theology was incubated in a Ph.D. thesis for the University of South Africa (7). "I am examining providence through the lens of divine risk taking" (14). The aim is to develop a model "for a risk-taking God within relational theism" (280).

Relational Theism (12, 161-165, 195, 282) begins with the loving relationships within the eternal Trinity (175-176, 184, 314n.23, 318n.) It then allows each of the three Persons to enter into reciprocal relations with humans (176). As a result "God has sovereignly decided to make some of his actions contingent on our requests and actions" (282). This "makes room for genuine divine responsiveness"(163).

Sanders claims that this model "is affirmed by eastern orthodoxy, Wesleyans, Arminians, much mainline Protestant theology, certain strains of Reformed and Catholic thought, Pentecostalism and evangelical piety" (195). It is the very heart beat of Black theology.

And it is now espoused by "a growing number of evangelicals, such as Clark Pinnock, Philip Yancey, Henry Knight III, Gilbert Bilezikian, Greg Boyd, John Boykin, Harry Boer" (163). Sanders frequently quotes the Dutch Reformed theologian Vincent Brummer and the Lutheran commentator Terence Fretheim. Under the same umbrella he locates C.S.Lewis and the "marvellously sensitive" work of the feminist theologians, Catherine Mowry LaCugna and Elizabeth Johnson.

Within this larger model of Relational Theism Sanders identifies various sub-models such as Freewill Theism, Simple Foreknowledge and some forms of Middle Knowledge (12). All of these he discusses extensively. But he focuses on the particular sub-model which he calls Presentism (129-137, 163-4, 198-206). Sanders identifies this as the model used by himself and other contributors to Clark Pinnock (Editor) The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God, Downer's Grove: InterVarsity, 1995.

Rather than having foreknowledge, the future for God is "partially indefinite" (74). This is because the future depends partly on human reactions to what God is doing, and God's freedom "to change his path based on his own purposes" (133, 205).

As a result God is only omniscient about the past and the present. This seems to follow from the internal logic of Sanders' model, but it will be the hardest part of his proposal to accept. One result is that, instead of detailed predictions about the future God gives us prophecy. And prophecy can reveal what God has in mind to do, but the details are open to change depending on human responses. God can change his mind. Having announced a purpose to intervene in wrath, humans can repent, and God can change the timing and content of the appropriate judgment.

As the explanation of this radical model unfolds it permits a very appealing picture of God's love for us. "Through agape love God gives of himself in Jesus to sinful creatures and so experiences suffering and humiliation. Such love is nonmanipulative and unselfish, seeking the greatest well-being of the creatures" (138, see 175-181). "The way of God is a love that desires the eradication of the sin which ruins the beloved. Yet, this love does not force its will on the beloved. Rather it comes to us in passionate vulnerability" (138).

Sanders' focus is on the very large measure of risk involved in such an Openness of God model (Presentism). In the "no risk" view of most Christian Theists "no event ever happens without God's specifically selecting it to happen. Nothing is too insignificant for God's meticulous and exhaustive control" (10). In that traditional view an immutable God cannot in any way be conditioned by those he loves (195, 207). That removes the possibility of risk, but it leaves no room for "God as a personal being who enters into personal relationship with us" (12).

But Sanders goes on to illustrate from extensive exegesis of Old Testament stories (Chapter 3) and from the New Testament (Chapter 4) the many examples of "genuine give-and-take relations between God and humans." I was struck by the idea that "God not only gives but in some sense receives." It is an awesome thought that God delights in my puny child-like responses to his love, and is hurt when I hold back. But inevitably such a loving relationship with us is very risky for God.

My one complaint was that the book could give the impression that our God who risks will lose control of human attempts to dethrone him. I suggest the model he has developed needs to be balanced by what I set out in Advent Comings of the Lord Among Nations. When evil nations and individuals get out of hand the Bible is full of terrible Day of the Lord wrath interventions. Sanders only mentions this in passing (77-78). But that is only a minor fault in the model which is easily corrected.

Why is this book of such importance for theologians (see the nine accolades on the front and back cover)? The theme of risk greatly expands the openness of God model that Clark Pinnock and others have outlined for us. This connects with, and greatly develops the Trinitarian model of the Cappadocian Fathers and much recent work on the theology of the Trinity. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each involved in their own way in the risk taking of love.

Though the book will be mainly read by theologians, the model could make a huge difference to the way we live our lives. We do not have to blame God for the death of innocent people by human error or intention. God allows us the freedom to make mistakes, including disastrous ones for ourselves and for others. Perhaps we should add that in the light of the resurrection no disasters including untimely death have eternal consequences.

We can also see how God takes the risk of delighting in us, listening to us, trusting us with the awesome responsibility of changing people by our love. God is there for us at every step. And again using our Trinitarian model we can see God as Parent setting up our environment. God the Son leading us into battle against the forces of evil.

In Flame of Love Clark Pinnock showed how Jesus' conception, baptism, temptation, parables, praying, healing, and even his resurrection were all empowered by the Spirit. Sanders' model sets Jesus spiritual warfare and ours in the context of Aulen's Christus Victor. As we engage in the battle of loving we also overcome the world by the same spiritual resources that Jesus needed to draw on. And for us also love is very risky.

As these models coalesce we might compare the rapidly expanding model of modern genetics. The early work of Mendel was applied in animal and plant breeding. Crick and Watson's Double Helix pictured the structure of DNA. That has expanded into forensic identification, gene therapy, and much else. The mapping of all the genes on each of our chromosomes is proceeding apace. We should not expect the clarification of a model to understand a risk taking God to be any simpler.

Sanders is very careful to admit that he is not offering a proof (10, 12-14, 16-19). Theological models are to be tried out and tested (282). But He rightly insists that the testing is not by pre-conceived philosophical assumptions of what God must be like, but by careful reading of the Scriptures. And every model is tentative, "Let's try looking at it this way."

This book encourages me to imagine theology might again become the queen of the sciences if theologians could move from confrontation, nit picking and name calling to trying out the rich variety of models that are now being offered to us.

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