Tag Archives: free will theology

Richard Beck on the Risky God of Open Theism

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post responding to Richard Beck’s series from a few years ago on divine apatheia: Divine Freedom, Apatheia, and Gentile Politics. Richard Beck engaged the post in the comment section,

“Thanks for engaging those old posts of mine. I think your criticisms are very valid and in the seven years since I wrote those posts I’ve come to a position very similar one you articulate here. Also through reading theologians like Moltmann, Cone and Gutierrez.

In my wrestling with the problem of suffering in 2007 I was writing from a place that envisioned God as an impersonal force. I was reading a lot of Buddhism, Spinoza and stoic philosophy. The series I wrote reflected those influences. I was probably more Buddhist than Christian in 2007. But I think about those things very differently now.

What I find potent in your critique of stoicism is how it mutes the prophetic cry and struggle for justice. The oppressed are asked to accept their fate impassively, stoically. That is hugely problematic.

In the end, that’s the reason I moved on to embrace the passionate God who suffers alongside the oppressed in their struggle toward liberation.”

In a recent post by Beck, he “experiments” with relational theology, while discussing both process and open theisms: Empathic Open Theism. While I will keep re-reading this post, I think I agree with most of it, and I may engage it in the near future after my Anabaptist Theology and Black Power series this week. My friends Tom and Dwayne over at An Open Orthodoxy have started a series engaging Beck: Beck on Empathic Open Theism and Experimental Open Theism Part 1, even bringing some questiosn to Beck’s own questions of libertarian free will.

I will leave you with a quote from Richard Beck, whose arguing for God’s Otherness / Transcendence while affirming the Incarnation:

“Let me add this to the discussion.

Open theism is often associated with God taking “risks” with humanity. I agree, but my view changes this a bit.

Specifically, in my view the “risk” God takes is less about prediction than Otherness. That is, what makes the human/divine interaction a relationship isn’t God being unable to predict what a free agent will do. That’s not what makes for a relationship. What makes for a relationship is a sort of “unknowing” that exists between two people, an “unknowing” that both partners work to overcome in the act of deepening relational intimacy. True, when you don’t know someone well they are “unpredictable” to you, but the deeper issue is the lack of intimacy rather than the other person having free will.

So what I’m suggesting is that when God created humanity God gave us experiential space that was uniquely our own. And by giving us this space we became, to some degree, “strangers” to God. That was the risk God took, granting us that relational autonomy, to enter into a relationship with some “unknowns.” To allow us to start off, to some degree, as “strangers.”

And more, in creating this situation God knew that the only way to fully and finally “know us” God would have to enter into and participate in the fullness of human experience “from the inside.” Which meant that to fully know us God knew God had to suffer. Thus the love song of the Incarnation, God’s ultimate act of “coming near” to close the gap.

In sum, God’s risk wasn’t the risk of unpredictability–“What will they do?”–but the risk of intimacy–“Here am I. Who are you?” “

Open Theology, Clement, Stoicism, and Prevenient Grace

There are many parallels between Clement of Alexandria’s theology and John Wesley’s. In fact, there was a study that I read and recommend, A Definitive Study of Evidence Concerning John Wesley’s Appropriation of the Thought of Clement of Alexandria by Neil D. Anderson.  Today, I want to briefly look at what John Wesley and Arminian theologians call preparatory, or preventing grace.  Prevenient grace is where “Wesley believed that God places a little spark of divine grace within us that enables us to recognize and accept God’s justifying grace.”  My apologies in advance for the long quotes followed below.  

“So there is no absurdity in philosophy having been given by Divine.  Providence as a preparatory discipline for the perfection which is by Christ; unless philosophy is ashamed at learning from Barbarian knowledge how to advance to truth.”

– The Stromata (Carpets/Miscellanies), Book 6, Chapter 17

This selection is one but many where Clement refers to the philosophies of the Gentiles as objects of preparation. As such, as Clement argues, these ideas and practices are in no way equal to the revelation that the Scriptures passed down to the Church attest to. On the subject of the Stoics, Clement of Alexandria was a bit critical of their doctrine. “Thence also the Stoics have laid down the doctrine, that living agreeably into nature is the end, fitly altering the name of god into nature; since also nature extends to plants, to seeds, to trees, to stones.”- The Stromata, Book 2, Chapter 19.

Now, the subject matter, the literary context where Clement is talking about the Stoics confusing nature for god is what’s crucial. If nature is god (similar to process naturalism), god is an impersonal force. In the paragraph before, Clement is discussing Plato, and how Plato says that happiness is to be in the likeness of God. But Plato, according to Clement’s account, plagiarized Moses, and so it’s really only through the Exodus God that Moses wrote about that we can know personally who to (YHWH) and how (the Ten Commandments) to participate in the life of the Creator. “For the law calls assimilation following; an such a following to the utmost of its power assimilates. ‘Be,’ says the Lord, ‘ merciful and pitiful, as your heavenly Father is pitiful. [CoA citing Luke 6:36]’- ibid.

Following Clement’s argument, CoA is arguing that to partake in the Triune God’s life is to obey and be on one accord with the One True God of the Exodus. In his commentary on the Decalogue, on the first commandment, Clement explains there is but one God who revealed Godself to humanity in the deliverance of the Hebrews from Pharaoh.  YHWH freely defines Godself as a Loving and Just Divinity by showing pathetic acts of mercy.  It is in this self-revelation of the divine that humanity knows God in God’s pathos, the self-humiliating journey from the throne of heaven to the world.

Not only is the Exodus Creator God willing to demonstrate God’s holiness through acts of self-giving and self-revealing acts, God is awesomely generous.  God’s grace, as the Gospels say, is like the Sun, that shines on the just and  unjust.  For Clement, Truth has revealed himself in the Logos.  Speaking to the “Greek preparatory culture” since Clement was located in Alexandria, the Greek speaking city of Roman Egypt, Clement compares the salvific work of the Good Shepherd who not only takes “care of sheep, but the care of herds, and breeding of horses, and dogs, and bee-craft.”  While all of these philosophies differ, they can be useful for life. Now, question is how does Clement define “philosophy.”  They are in his words “whatever has been well said by each of those sects, which teach righteousness along with a science pervaded by piety,” and more importantly, Clement stresses, “But such conclusions of human reasonings as men have cut away and falsified, I would never call divine.”

Two important notes: first, Clement says that what ever is beneficial to Christian holy praxis, these philosophies are worthy.  However, these truths and practices are not to be understood as universal or binding, never to be called divine, or ever on par with Scripture.  These philosophies are glimpses of indirect contact with God,”in the way showers fall on the good land, and on the dunghill.” (above quotes taken from,The Stromata/The Carpets Book 1, Chapter 7).  The difference between the God as self-revealed, personal, and covenantal living with God’s people in the Promised and Athenian sophists speculating on a dungheap is great.  For example, take Clement’s critical appropriation of the Stoics, once more, “Now the Stoics say that God, like the soul, is essentially body and spirit.  You will find explicitly in all their writings.  Do not consider at present their allegories as the gnostic [Christian mystical] truth. presents them; whether they show one thing, and mean another, like dexterous athletes.  Well, they say that God pervades all being; while we [Christians] call Him solely Maker, and Maker by the Word,  They [the Stoics] were misled by what is said in the book of Wisdom: ‘ He pervades and passes through all by reason of His purity,’ since they did not understand that this was said of Wisdom, which was the first of the creation of God.” (Stromata/Carpets, Book 5, Chapter 14).

So Clement continues the line that the Greeks, even the Stoics, badly plagiarized concepts from Scriptures.  While the Stoics saw an impersonal force of nature throughout everything, Clement argues to say that it is the work of the Logos, the Wisdom of God.  An impersonal force cannot share life or any of its attributes with creation.  This ancient version of what we now call  process naturalism. This is why Clement, like a few other Church Fathers had to radically redefine ideas like impassibility.  God is covenantally and dynamically sovereign over Godself and the world, is in control of God’s emotions, but God also chooses to use passions to accomplish God’s mission in the world: salvation.  I will save Clement’s thoughts on grace, wrath and atonement for another post.  On God’s happiness, Clement says,

“And for this reason we rightly do not sacrifice to God, who, needing nothing supplies all men with all things; but we glorify Him who gave Himself in sacrifice for us, we also sacrificing ourselves; from that which needs nothing to that which needs nothing, and to that which is impassible from that which is impassible.  For in our salvation alone God delights.  We do not therefore, and with reason too, offer sacrifice to Him who is not overcome by pleasures […] The Deity neither is, then, in want of aught, nor loves pleasure, or gain, or money being full, and supplying all thing to everything that has received being and has wants.And neither by sacrifices nor offerings, nor on the other hand by glory and honor, is the Deity won over; nor is He influenced by any such things but He appears only to excellent and good men, who will never betray justice for threatened fear, nor by the promise of considerable gifts.”-

 

Stromata/Carpets, Book 7, Chapter 3

The Triune God is not some self-glorifying Johnny Bravo as Piper and the New Calvinism teaches, neither is God the recipient of all of human experiences as forms of process theism teach.  Rather God freely determines Godself, whose freedom and covenantal natural when God reveals Godself to us, operates as the source of what Clement calls “the self-determination of the soul.” Because “believing and obeying are in” our [the Christian mystics’] power, works always out of neighborly love, so that their neighbors may experience goodness, and become good themselves.  The person who is justified in Christ first rules over herself, and by partaking in the true, shared life of the Trinity, becomes a most moved mover and shaker co-creating a more just society with the God of the Exodus [Clement gives the example of Moses, specifically in politics] (ibid).  In conclusion, in order to understand what true justice is, and the purpose of social justice, humanity must have Justice revealed to them

Wonder Woman saves the day: On Being An Open Theist

There’s a saying among comic book fans who like DC Comics. If you need someone to save the world, call Superman. If there is a mystery to be solved, call Batman. And if you need to end a war, call Wonder Woman.

When it comes to religion and politics, there are always going to be factions. With persons who identify as Open Theists, things aren’t going to be any different. First of all, let me be upfront. I believe in the freedom of the Triune God who freely decides to give humanity free will so that we can have genuine relationships. I have for the most part always believed in this with the exception of the 3 or 4 years I was a 4 point Calvinist. Even when I was Calvinist, I got into arguments with liberals and evangelicals and postevangelicals IRL and online on Facebook. The worst arguments happened in Calvinist groups themselves. I couldn’t believe there were so many different varieties of Calvinism. Come on, someone claimed to be both an anabaptist and Calvinist! That was ridiculous (I thought in my mind).

When I left Calvinism, it was not any of my Arminian, liberal, or emerging church friends who convinced me to eventually leave Calvinist theology. It was one of the Five Point Hardliners who sent me a 20 page paper (I kid you not) via a Facebook message explaining to me why I was not a REAL Calvinist (and therefore not a real Christian) since I didn’t affirm ALL FIVE POINTS. I was so angry, I first started re-reading the Bible without Calvinist interpretation, learning historical contexts for things like the story of Jacob and Esau. It was around that time I transitioned to identifying as an outspoken Trinitarian and Open Theist.

When I first learned of Open Theism, I was unimpressed. In Baptist Theology class, the teacher abused his authority, using polemics and demonization to demonstrate his fauxgressive take on Open Theism. He would regularly cite C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle and the story of the servant of Tash. Not. Impressed. It’s not as if the Tash story doesn’t have problems, like Orientalism, which is one of the three stools of White Supremacy’s throne. Plus, C.S. Lewis does not equal the Christian Canon or Tradition. So there was that too.

It took a combination of prayerful reflection on the Scriptures, familiarizing myself with continental philosophy, as well as forging friendships with people like T.C. Moore to help me grow as an Open Theist. What other theology dared begin with Jesus’ call to repentance as the start of theological introspection? Whose the politician outside George W. Bush that actually made Jesus the number one philosopher? Much like John Howard Yoder [whose silence and embodiment of male supremacy is problematic] who is said to have brought back Jesus’ teachings as central to Christian ethics, Open theists made free will theology anew, grounded in Jesus, contemporary hermeneutics and traditional evangelical theology such as God’s triunity and the trustworthiness of Scripture. At Brite Divinity School, I could have followed suit with everyone else and hopped on the process theology bandwagon, but I chose not to.

Instead, I wanted to take the risk of being different. Open Theism is some of the best that Evangelicalism has to offer. Honestly, part of my goal at trying to be the best theologian and preacher I can be, I wanted to dialogue with evangelicals, and the Openness of God movement was, and is a good way to do so. The Open Theist community has folks who are also Pentecostal, Baptist, Mennonite, heretical political libertarians, six-day Young Earth Creationists, theistic-evolutionists, inerrantists, proponents of cruciformity, Anglicans. As with any theological movement, it is going to have its various factions. Yes I [personally] believe Open Theism is necessarily Trinitarian, but I respect other’s approaches to seeing the future as partially open. This isn’t relativism or being “overwhelmed” with diversity; this is me working in the hopes of persuading others to my side. That side does include a commitment to traditional creedal Christianity, Charismatic traditions, and open theology, much like Tom Belt offers.

One caveat. A unified voice for renewal must not be hegemonic, and it must match the gender inclusive vision of Pentecost, women and men preaching the Good News. Any renewal movement must also look to pay attention to the margins. Yes formally, open theism was made a systematic alternative to calvinist evangelicalism in 1994, but there have been persons who wrote and preached about God sovereignly choosing divine self-limitation and the partial openness of the future for centuries. Major J. Jones in the 1970’s (a classmate of Rev. Dr. MLK Jr.) wrote about a personal, holy Triune God and he had Openness leanings. Open Theism cannot be a Small Tent Revival kind of movement. It needs the biblical model of Pentecost if it is to open up space for a Spirit-led renewal.