Soundings, Think

Of human freedom and the sovereignty of God

How would you evaluate the basic tenets of Open Theism?

THEOLOGIANS throughout the centuries have wrestled with the question concerning the sovereignty of God and the free will of human beings.

Profound theological tomes have been written on the subject in conversation with Scripture and the doctrinal tradition of the Church. Most theologians would maintain that both divine sovereignty and human freedom must be held if Christians are to be faithful to Scripture, although there are sharp disagreements on how these two assertions may be reconciled.

In 1994, Richard Rice, John Sanders, Clark Pinnock, Hasker and David Basinger published a volume of essays with the title, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God. As the sub-title of the book suggests, these essays were written to call to question the traditional conception of God, particularly His sovereignty and foreknowledge in relation to human freedom.

This book was followed by many others: The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (John Sanders); Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Clark Pinnock); and God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Gregory Boyd). The view propounded by these authors, most of whom are evangelical theologians, is popularly named “Open Theism”.

The main tenets of open theism are neatly summarised in David Basinger’s essay in The Openness of God. The main concern of open theism, it must be pointed out, is how the sovereignty of God and human freedom and the relationship between the two must be understood.

Dissatisfied with the Augustinian and Calvinist understanding of divine sovereignty and human freedom (usually designated as the compatibilist view of freedom), open theists sought to present a version of the libertinerian view of human freedom. God, according to the open theists, has in His sovereignty created human beings with freedom over which He cannot exercise complete control. God prices human freedom so highly that He does not normally override it, even if He anticipates that it will produce undesirable results.

Open theists reject the traditional doctrine of the immutability of God, and maintain that God is deeply affected by what happens in human lives. In addition, because human freedom makes human actions unpredictable, God does not possess an exhaustive knowledge of the future. Thus although God may sometimes predict with some degree of accuracy what human beings will do in their freedom, He is not omniscient in that He does not really know the future, lacking in foreknowledge of human actions. Thus, together with His creatures, God faces an uncertain future.

John Sanders, a representative voice of open theism, has put this point across clearly: “Since God does not necessarily know exactly what will happen in the future, it is always possible that even that which God in His unparalleled wisdom believes to be the best course of action at any given time may not produce the anticipated results in the long run.”

These proposals are energetically refuted by a number of evangelical theologians, resulting in an impressive stream of publications. Significant criticisms of open theism include John Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (2001), Norman Geisler, Wayne House, and Max Herrera (Eds.), The Battle for God: Responding to the Challenge of Neotheism, Douglas Huffman and Eric Johnson (Eds.), God Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents God (2002), John Piper, Justin Taylor and Paul Helseth (Eds.), Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Understanding of Biblical Christianity (2003). These authors defend the traditional concepts of God as sovereign and immutable against the revisionist approaches of the theologians of open theism.

The question raised by open theism is an important one, although the answer that it provides is theologically problematic. Theology must envision divine sovereignty in such a way that accords full integrity to the freedom that God has given to His rational creatures when He created them in His image. The problem with the proposal of the open theists is that while the latter (human freedom) is upheld, the former (divine sovereignty) is somewhat compromised.

Of course, much has to do with the way in which we understand divine sovereignty and human free will.

These are important theological topics about which theologians have written voluminously. I will not be able to do justice to them in the limited space allotted for this column. But what can be said in response to open theism, albeit very briefly, is that while we must conceive of divine sovereignty in such a way that it does not negate human freedom, we must do so without denying divine omniscience or that God is in full control of the future.

In addition, while we must accord human freedom with its proper integrity, we must also recognise that human freedom is creaturely freedom. That is to say, while human freedom is real, it is also freedom that is qualified, limited, finite, and governed by many different circumstances. In other words, the profound relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom cannot be treated as a zero-sum game.

Perhaps the most fundamental problem with open theism is that it treats the mystery of the relationship between God and human beings as a logical puzzle that must be solved. This is the general predilection of theology in the Western tradition. It is here that we can learn from Eastern orthodoxy, which emphasises the importance of human freedom without losing sight of the sovereignty of God and His unchanging purposes for the world.

Eastern orthodox theologians are able to humbly accept these truths without being compelled to offer a logical solution. In this way, Eastern orthodox theology shows itself to be more profound than certain versions of Western theology.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine and Dean of the School of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfi eld Preaching Point in Woodlands.