A review of Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker,
and David Basinger, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the
Traditional Understanding of God. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity
Press / Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 1994).
Among Christians a traditional model of an impassive, immutable, omnipotent God is usually taken for granted. The Openness of God offers an alternative model in which God feels and listens to us, responds to our concerns, and can even change his mind. This model is presented in five impressive chapters by theologians who make us look at the biblical evidence from a quite different point of view.
In the Preface Clark Pinnock outlines the main features of a vision of God's openness. We are given the freedom to cooperate with or work against God, and this involves a genuine interaction between God and us. God takes risks, and is "open to receiving input" from ordinary men and women.
A first chapter by Richard Rice is entitled "Biblical Support for a New Perspective." In the traditional model God's irresistible sovereign will is the only governing consideration. The result is that God remains untouched by our disappointments, sorrows, and suffering.
Rice admits that it is possible to pick out biblical metaphors that fit the traditional model which argues from God's immutability and sovereignty. But there are other metaphors that suggest that love is the governing attribute of God. 1 John 4:8-16 and other New Testament texts pick up on the many Old Testament texts about the steadfast love of God. This is why in the openness model "all of God's characteristics" derive from the fact that God is first love.
As opposed to the assumption that God is impassive, Rice points out that the Old Testament refers to God's "joy, grief, anger and regret." In the three parables of Luke 15 God is pictured as rejoicing over receiving back what was lost.
And as opposed to the assumption that God is immutable, Rice quotes Genesis 6:6, 18:23-32, Exodus 32:14, 1 Samuel 15:35, Jonah 3:10, and other texts. In each case interpreters who adhere to the traditional model explain that it is humans who change, but God is impassive and immutable. But that is not what the texts plainly say.
In the next chapter on "Historical Considerations" John Sanders traces back the idea of immutability to the Pre-Socratic philosophers of Greece. Plato argued that "the Good" is self-sufficient and perfect. Aristotle pictured an "unmoved mover." Philo adapted Greek philosophy to the Bible and said God could neither have passion or change, and Sanders traces these ideas through the early Church fathers.
It was Augustine who listed "self-sufficient, impassable, immutable" among the attributes of God which were set in stone and adopted by both Roman Catholics and Protestants. Calvin, for example, defined God's sovereignty as "nothing happens except what is knowingly and willingly decreed by him" (Institutes 3.23.2).
Following Stephen Charnock's Discourses on the Existence and Attributes of God, a distinction is often made between "upper level" texts which define God as "transcendent, independent, alone, immutable" and "lower level" texts which describe God as he appears to us. This methodology is followed by well known theologians such as William G.T. Shedd, A.H. Strong, Louis Berkhof, Herman Bavinck, Lewis Sperry Chafer, A.W. Tozer, Charles Ryrie, J.I. Packer, Carl Henry. One result of this is that theologians have assumed that prayer cannot change God's mind. Even A.W. Tozer was sure that any change "must be on our part."
John Sanders concludes with evidence that some theologians are beginning to shift to another model. Among these he notes James Oliver Buswell Jr., Nicholas Wolterstorff, Stephen Davis, Richard Foster, Donald Bloesch, Gabriel Fackre, Terence Fretheim, Thomas Torrance, Thomas Oden, and others. Some popular Evangelical writers might not affirm the full openness of God, but they certainly allow for "genuine divine responsiveness." A very readable best seller is Philip Yancey's Disappointment with God: Three Questions No One Asks Aloud, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1988).
The third chapter on "Systematic Theology" by Clark Pinnock is a fine example of Model Theology (p.103). He uses a model of "the social Trinity" to offer an alternative to the "immobility and inertness" of the traditional view on the one hand and the equally unacceptable Monism of Process Theology. He concludes that the open view of God offers us a model that allows for his "generosity, sensitivity and vulnerability."
The fourth chapter by William Hasker offers us "A Philosophical Perspective." There are philosophical difficulties with a timeless God acting, God knowing, God responding in prayer, and God being born among us, suffering and dying. Similarly with divine immutability and impassability. As Nicholas Wolterstorff has shown, the Bible pictures God as "living, acting, and reacting" in our time sequence.
Hasker fills out the philosophical problems inherent in Process Theology. He also examines the logical contradictions of the determinism of Augustine, and his followers in our western tradition such as Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and even Zwingli. There is a helpful discussion of Molinism and "simple foreknowledge" as alternatives to a strict Calvinism.
Hasker then explains some implications the open view of God, which he also calls "free-will theism." This does not deny the omnipotence and omniscience of God as long as we see that God governs "according to general strategies" for our good, not by forcing our individual decisions.
Finally David Basinger sets out some "Practical Implications." A key to this is that God "does not normally override" our freedom. He then deals with petitionary prayer, divine guidance, humans suffering, social responsibility and evangelistic responsibility.
Basinger's conclusion is a careful statement of what model theology can and cannot do. The openness model cannot be proved to be logically or experientially superior, but it is plausible, appealing, exciting, and spiritually rewarding. And the authors invite us to take the risk of trying it out and comparing it with the traditional interpretation of the attributes of God.