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Open Theism Misses The Mark With Metaphysics (Review)

A friend and I recently conversed about possible positive appropriations of “open theism.”1 While initially ill-at-ease with the label, I soon began to understand why this movement has been so influential. In an effort to learn more, I read chapter three of The Openness of God (a seminal text for open theism). What follows is my critique.

Metaphysics and Personhood

Throughout this chapter, Pinnock goes out of his way to situate “metaphysics” in opposition to “personhood.” This is a false dichotomy. A divine Person can be (and is) a metaphysical first principle (primum principium). Let’s consider an example. Pinnock limits the meaning of Ex 3:14 to a promise of God’s faithfulness to God’s people—ruling out the “I AM” statement as an indicator of God’s ontological status. But what prevents faithfulness and metaphysical primacy from complementing one another? Why must a “metaphysical statement about abstract being” replace the “God of promise who acts in history?” (106).

Yet another example can be found a few pages later, where Pinnock claims that “it is appropriate to speak of God as a community of persons rather than as modes of being” (108). Again, what prevents both manners of speech from applying to God? Christians can openly affirm the Fatherhood, Sonship, and Spiration of the three Persons of the Trinity while also acknowledging that each of the distinct Persons—united as they are in one Essence, one purpose, one will—plays a distinct role in the economic and immanent Trinity (e.g. Begetting for the Father, Expressing for the Son, and Consummating for the Spirit). These “distinct roles” are what classical theism describes when it parses out different “modes of being” within God. Pinnock’s totalizing statements are a shallow and unfaithful reading of the theologians of the past.

In attacking his strawman reading of classical metaphysics, Pinnock often contradicts himself and undermines his own arguments. For instance, he affirms that “God is so transcendent that [God] creates room for others to exist and maintains a relationship with them … God is so powerful as to be able to stoop down” (105). But then on the same page, he criticizes theologians of the past for preferring “to speak more of God’s power than of weakness, more of God’s eternity than of temporality” (105). But does Pinnock not provide an interpretive key, in the first quote, for understanding the perceived errors highlighted in the second? God is so powerful that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.

Finally, Pinnock falls prey to the same “either/or” logic he falsely accuses classical theism of employing. The only difference is that, instead of overemphasizing transcendence, he overemphasizes immanence. “God,” he claims, “is the perfection of love and communion, the very antithesis of self-sufficiency” (108). But no orthodox theologian has ever affirmed the self-sufficiency of God without reference to the divine community of Persons. God’s aseity is never considered as God’s only known property—to do so would belie the fact that Scripture and tradition reveal personal aims within the mystery of God’s agency. We become aware of God’s transcendence through the communion and love of the Church, just as we find God’s immanence in the classical definition of God transcending all things. Because God transcends all things—having a relationship to time and space similar to that of a single geometric point3—God is immanent to all things. Pinnock seems to mistake classical theism’s emphasis on “the God of the Philosophers”4 for a rejection of the personal God of the Bible—the God known by faith, through revelation, as a community of Persons acting within history for the salvation of the universe.

The Place of Scripture and its Interpretation

“My task here is to correct this imbalance in the handling of the transcendence and immanence of God. This requires allowing Scripture to challenge tradition and not permitting theology to be Hellenic where that would be unbiblical” (107).

That final word, ‘unbiblical,’ is a problematic one. Does Pinnock see Scripture as more akin to a set of data points than a living document that continually matures within the womb of the Church and her tradition of interpretation? It would seem so, since he describes “interpretation” as “a human activity in which we distinguish between the primary biblical data and any presuppositions and interests we bring to the task” (103). Yet later in the chapter, Pinnock admires the fact that “modern thinking” (i.e., our “presuppositions and interests”) “has more room for a God who is personal (even tripersonal) than it does for a God as absolute substance” (107). This assertion rests upon a negative view of the past—as if people in the “Hellenic” age were somehow stunted in their ability to perceive of God as anything more than an abstract principle. What of Acts 17, that famous sermon on Mars Hill in which Paul affirms both the mysterious, “unknown” nature of God and the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ as the one in whom “we live and move and have our being; as even some of your own poets have said?” Since the Scriptures, God-breathed as they are, interweave Hebraic and Hellenic theological categories in this way, we must reject quick-and-dirty readings that demonize Hellenism.5

It is certainly the case that one can err on the side of God’s transcendence. But perhaps Pinnock has neglected to consider an important qualification: when we ascribe freedom from change or suffering to God, we do not describe an absence of some good quality (e.g., compassion or empathy). The fact that God knows—at every level and in every sense—what it is for creatures to suffer is intrinsic to classical theism’s doctrine of divine knowledge. The notion that God must somehow acquire that knowledge by being identified as a human being is much more doubtful. It’s a complex question, and we shouldn’t rush to conclusions about classical theology and what it claims. The point of the structure (or “grammar”) of traditional theology is to let us know that the relation between Creator and creature is not, and can never be, one of competition or rivalry.

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Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is assistant professor of theology at Divine Word College. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. His interests outside the academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

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