The Function of Divine Self-Limitation in Open Theism: Great Wall or Picket Fence?

By Highfield, Ron | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 2002 | Go to article overview

The Function of Divine Self-Limitation in Open Theism: Great Wall or Picket Fence?


Highfield, Ron, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Evangelical theologians are dusting off their copies of the Church fathers, Anselm, Aquinas, Scotus, Occam, Luther, Calvin, Arminius, and Molina. Perhaps it is not quite like fourth-century Constantinople where market places, street corners, and barbershops buzzed with discussion about the doctrine of the Trinity. But we are discussing the doctrine of God seriously and with passion-in scholarly and popular journals, in local and national, academic gatherings, and even in churches. We owe this renaissance in part to the controversial proposals of the "openness of God"1 school of thought or, as I shall refer to it, "open theism." Open theism endeavors to revise the traditional doctrine of God to make it more biblical and of greater contemporary relevance. It fleshes out its intuitions by differentiating itself from the classical doctrine of God and process theism.2 On the one hand, open theism disputes the traditional doctrines of divine immutability, impassibility, omnipotence, omniscience, aseity, and eternity. On the other hand, it declines process theism's invitation to follow it in rejecting the doctrines of God's unlimited nature and creation from nothing. Open theism dissents from the traditional consensus that God controls all things, but it refuses to give up the belief that God could control all things, if he so chose.

Critics engage open theism on various fronts and do not mince words in their judgments. Open theism, they say: offers us a "diminished God,"3 teaches "fantasy" and "heresy,"4 undermines a "high view of Scripture,"5 places "God at risk,"6 misjudges "the difference between created (finite) being and untreated (infinite) being,"7 pictures God as a "transcendence-- starved deity,"8 and bids us trust a "limited God."' It appears, however, that critics are still struggling to mount an effective critique. Confessionalist arguments fall flat when directed at a frankly revisionist movement. Biblicists find it difficult to show definitively that open theism departs from the Bible. And those traditionalists who see open theism as heresy may have to wait a while before the contemporary church reaches a consensus on that issue.

I shall not attempt, therefore, to show that open theists' views are biblically unsound, confessionally unfaithful, or heretical. 10 My aim is much more modest, but (I contend) much more likely to produce convincing, even if not definitive, conclusions. In their revised doctrine of God, open theists claim they can hold both that the de facto existence of the world limits God's power and knowledge and that God remains unlimited in his essential nature. They reconcile this apparent contradiction by means of a theory of divine self-limitation. The God who is unlimited by nature limits himself by an act of will, by choosing freely (ex nihilo) to create the sort of world that limits God. In assessing this thesis, I shall first describe briefly but (I trust) fairly open theists' portrait of God. Second, I shall dispute open theists' central claim by showing that the theory of divine self-limitation fails to reconcile the unlimited with the limited God and undermines the doctrine of creation from nothing.

I. THE GOD OF OPEN THEISM

Open theism proposes extensive revisions in the doctrines of immutability and impassibility. The notion that God does not change in any respect (immutability), open theism argues, is irreconcilable with the biblical picture of God. In the biblical narrative, God knows and experiences the changing world "on a momentary basis."11 God acts freely and responsively in the world and is affected by it. Though "the essence of God does not change," God changes "in experience, knowledge, emotions and actions."12 Contrary to the classical doctrine of impassibility, open theism claims God can feel pain and suffer loss. In the OT, God is passionate, experiencing the full range of emotions: mercy, regret, sadness, and anger. The NT affirms God is love-a love clearly more than mere benevolence. …

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