God is sovereign and controls all things that come to pass. That is a basic belief of the Christian faith. Or is it? God knows all things, we say. But, does he really? In Titus 1 Paul writes, “For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers, and deceivers especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.” This is one text which reminds us of the necessity to teach sound doctrine. Paul writes about the consequences of false teachings. They have a negative impact on relationships, upsetting whole families and, by implication, broader social units.
Paul’s words are important to us because in our pluralistic postmodern context, we are encouraged to believe that we can create our own reality. But if we have a wrong view of God, our view of ourselves will be flawed since we are his image and likeness. From those two faulty views grow all kinds of weeds and thorns that will choke and destroy other relationships. When we are wrong about God, every other major truth is affected-Scripture, the Trinity, Christ, the atonement, eschatology, God’s requirements for us, and reality itself.
In the March/April issue of Equip for Ministry we reviewed John Frame’s No Other God, A Response to Open Theism. We encouraged you to read and study that book because it deals with a topic that sadly is becoming more popular, especially among those who call themselves evangelicals. Though the church has dealt with this issue in the past, it still exists. It has several different names: “open theism,” “free will theism,” or “open view of God.” Like Frame, I do not accuse those who teach this of being intentionally heretical, but their teachings are wrong and distort God. They are capably articulate, but even granting them the benefit of the doubt that they are trying to be biblical, we still must conclude that they are in error.
They maintain that those who have a traditional view of God are not considering all of Scripture, and that when we do read the passages on which they build their case, we are turning cartwheels to make everything work according to our traditional system. Their teaching strikes at the heart of who God is and who we are. It challenges his sovereignty, his foreknowledge, and man’s “free will.” From there it challenges the sufficiency of Christ’s death and what it accomplishes. Can we really believe that God did not know whether Jesus would sin or not, that the Protestant Reformation would take place, or the September 11 disaster would happen?
Open theism begins subtly with the idea that God has humanlike characteristics that are not emphasized in traditional teaching. As the proponents develop their “movement in theology,” they have simply bought into a paradigm or model of God that differs from our Calvinistic and view of God. They claim that God does not know beforehand what is going to happen because to know would require his control to see that those things actually happened and that would infringe upon man’s free will. As Clark Pinnock, an advocate of open theism states, he is a “self-limited God.” He does not know all things, only the past and the present. He does not control all things to his predetermined end because so much depends on what man does. He doesn’t know beforehand who will or will not be saved. He can predict the future, only in part, because the future is not yet known. He is changeable and will alter his plan according to what man does; hence man has the ability to change God’s mind, determine the course of history, and play on God’s “humanlike” emotions.
I believe these teachers are reacting to an extremely deterministic view of God that makes man less than responsible for his actions, because God has predetermined all things. As you read Openness of God or The Case for Freewill Theism, you cannot miss their caricature of the sovereignty of God. According to their representation of the traditional view of God, it does not matter what man does or does not do. God is set in his ways and man’s actions make no difference. God does not even have serious interaction with man. Human decisions make no difference in their paradigm. Richard Rice, an open view of God advocate, frequently refers to God’s actions in relation to man as dynamic not static. That is, God is open to persuasion and change, even altering his plans, depending on man’s actions. He is not a stern, inflexible, all powerful God. Rice writes, “What he actually decides to do depends directly on the actions of human beings.”
What this really means is that God, like man, reacts to circumstances and those circumstances determine God’s course of action. Sound familiar? It is not a new teaching. It has been around for a long time under different names. For example: libertarianism, which teaches that man has total free will to choose and decide what he is or is not going to do. He has the freedom and often the power to make those choices, hence the designation “free will theism.” Another name for the open view of God is Socinianism, a sixteenth and seventeenth century heresy that challenged the traditional view of God, the Trinity, and the atoning work of Christ on the cross.
Frame quotes Robert Strimple, of Westminster Theological Seminary (Escondido), “But Socinianism also held to a heretical doctrine of God. The Socinian doctrine can be stated very briefly, and it must be contrasted with both Calvinism and Arminianism. Calvinism (or Augustinianism) teaches that the sovereign God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass, and therefore He foreknows whatsoever comes to pass….The Socinians insisted that it was a contradiction of human freedom to believe in the sovereign foreordination of God. So they went ‘all the way’(logically) and denied not only that God has foreordained the free decisions of free agents but also that God foreknows what those decisions will be. That is precisely the teaching of the ‘free will theism’ of Pinnock, Rice, and other like-minded ‘new model evangelicals.’ They want their doctrine of God to sound very ‘new’ very modern, by dressing it up with references… but it is just the old Socinian heresy rejected by the church centuries ago,” (No Other Gods, page 33, 34). This is a good example of the importance of knowing church history. This teaching has been dealt with in the past and the conclusion can be helpful today.
In case you’re asked, being Christians of a biblically reformed Calvinistic persuasion, we respond, yes, we believe that God is the sovereign Lord who determines all things whatsoever that come to pass or he would be less than God. Yes, we believe that man has been given certain responsibilities and his actions can make a difference in how God’s plan plays out; yet, man cannot thwart the plan of God. Yes, we are certain that God does reveal himself as having certain humanlike characteristics, such as emotions, thoughts, and feelings. Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, has particularly experienced in his incarnation, all of our emotions, temptations, and limitations. Hence the writer of Hebrews states, “we do not have a high priest [Jesus] who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need,” (4:15, 16).
Because we are not God with unlimited abilities, we cannot always understand everything from a logical, rational perspective. But that is not a problem because we know that God’s ways are not our ways. We are aware that he is above logic, reason, and all parts of his created order, while being present within it. When we realize that God is the supernatural sovereign God, we are not bothered by not knowing everything that God knows. In fact, it is really refreshing not to have to believe that we have to know all things.
Does God know everything that will happen? According to the open theists, not before it takes place. Does God ever change his mind? Absolutely, they say. They even quote Scriptures to prove it. If man’s actions and behavior were totally foreknowable by God, then man would be less than free because God would have to see to it that those actions actually happen. But we believe that God is sovereign and controls everything in this creation, including man and his actions. Yet, we also believe that man is responsible for his actions before God. God does know all things, even the number of hairs on our head. He knew that Jesus would live a sinless life and not fail in his mission of going to the cross to die for our sins.
While we realize that these teachers claim to emphasize the part of God with which we can relate, the human side, we totally disagree with the extreme positions they take to get to that point. And, while we emphasize the sovereignty of God, we also realize that he is our personal God with whom we can interact with the deepest intimacy and love.