Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God's Openness

  • Clark Pinnock
  • Jan 1, 2002
  • Series: Volume 5 - 2002

Pinnock, Clark. 2001 Most Moved Mover. A Theology of God's Openness. Carlisle, UK: Paternoster; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.

He has done it again. As we have come to expect from this probing and provocative theologian, Clark Pinnock has thrown down another gauntlet in this most recent volume. The published form of the Didbury 2000 Lectures, Most Moved Mover seeks to advance and provide further defense of "openness theology," the latest potentially divisive issue before evangelicals (see more below). Pinnock is one of the three most vocal spokesmen for this position-the others are J. Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (IVP, 1998) and G. Boyd in several books, particularly God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Baker, 2000)-but there are numerous other writers who align themselves with some if not all of the tenets of the openness view [see, e.g., C. Pinnock et al., The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (IVP, 1994)]. This book is heavily footnoted, so readers interested in following the debates can readily track down the major instigators. For the record, Pinnock is approaching retirement from Baptist-related McMaster Divinity College in Ontario, Canada, where he is professor of Christian interpretation and has taught since 1977

The timing of the book is rather ironic, since it was written prior to the November 2001 meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society [ETS]. In fact the over-arching theme for those meetings was a consideration of the "openness of God theology" position. The book is a plea for dialogue and engagement among fellow evangelicals to assess the merits and liabilities of both the openness view and classical or traditional theism's view of God. In footnote 32 on page 11 Pinnock hopes that discussions of this view would not be stopped by the gatekeepers of the ETS, but that was not to be, for at those November meetings a majority vote relegated the "open view of God" as outside the boundaries of normative evangelical belief. That is to say, according to the motion that passed, one cannot be an inerrantist and affirm the open view of God. Next year's meetings may well see some members forced to resign as a result. It appears, therefore, that this will become another divisive issue for evangelicals, as was the inerrancy debates of several decades ago-though here the inerrantists within the ETS (where affirming inerrancy is a prerequisite for membership) have taken it upon themselves to decide which theological conclusions one may legitimately arrive while adhering to inerrancy.

Just what does the openness view assert? Pinnock and Sanders boil it down to four key elements: (1) God loves his creatures and made them so he could enter into reciprocal relationships with them (and they with each other); (2) sovereignly, God has determined that God will accomplish certain actions and will allow humans to collaborate with him in other actions; in other words God seeks human collaboration; (3) God exercises a general oversight over his creation, not the meticulous providence asserted by other theologies (especially Calvinism and Thomism); and (4) God has given humans libertarian freedom to make free choices and, importantly, to choose whether to enter true loving personal relationships, including a relationship with God. So, God has been willing to risk that his creatures will reject him.

Beyond that, and perhaps the most visibly controversial, is the openness view's denial that God possesses exhaustive foreknowledge of the future. That is, growing out of the four points above, they affirm that omniscience means God knows all that can be known. In other words, omniscience cannot include the knowledge of what does not exist. Since humans have true libertarian freedom to act, what they will do in the future cannot be known ahead of time, even by the omniscient God. Just as God's omnipotence is limited (God is powerful enough only to do what God can do-e.g., God cannot lie), so his omniscience is limited by what can be known. God has exhaustive knowledge of what can be known-as does no other creature-but he does not know the free choices humans will make since until they make those choices, there is nothing to be known. Therefore, in Pinnock's words, "the future is partly settled and partly unsettled, partly determined and partly undetermined and, therefore, partly unknown even to God."

Most Moved Mover is Pinnock's long-awaited apology for the openness view. He writes in constant dialog with his increasingly vociferous critics seeking to show the adequacy, even superiority, of the openness view. At least he wants to keep the view on the table for discussion and consideration. Time will tell how successful he will be, given the situation sketched above. The book has four sections. The goal of the first is to show that the openness view best captures the essence and ethos of the Scriptures. Pinnock constantly avers that it is the followers of traditional theism (usually his foil is Calvinism) who have allowed their philosophies to cloud and subvert the biblical witness. The second chapter considers "tradition," since theology today must be in conversation with the historic faith of the church. Chapter three asks how "reasonable" is the openness view vis-�-vis traditional theism. He considers how captive theology is and has been to philosophical systems. Finally, chapter four addresses the experiential dimension: which model has existential fit and practical adequacy for the people of God in the demands of life? A conclusion completes this 186-page volume.

As to "The Scriptural Foundations" of the openness view, Pinnock seeks to show that the Bible presents a very personal, loving God who desires personal relationships with his creatures-indeed the very reason he made them. So, "Augustine was wrong to have said that God does not grieve over the suffering of the world; Anselm was wrong to have said that God does not experience compassion; Calvin was wrong to have said that biblical figures that convey such things are mere accommodations to finite understanding." In other words, traditional theism has circumvented the clear statements of Scripture that speak of God's personal and reciprocal relationships with people because it bought into pagan philosophical ideas, starting with Augustine and followed by leading luminaries. When the Bible says that God repents or changes his mind (e.g., Exod. 32:11-14; 1 Sam. 15:35), Pinnock believes we should take these words seriously (though they are metaphors), rather than explain them away by alleging various anthropomorphic accommodations. So, the Bible asserts that God changes in the light of what happens; he genuinely interacts with the world and changes his courses of action in light of what emerges. How history will turn out is not predetermined; it is open. Thus Pinnock debunks any sense of God's timelessness, as if God is somehow "outside of time," a popular misconception in his view. God is everlasting, but is not outside of time, says Pinnock. God is very much involved in the give and take of his creation project. In a startling speculation, Pinnock even wonders whether we ought to think of God in some bodily sense, at least so far as to say that God is not formless (pp. 33f.). God is not remote. Traditional theism has too much stressed his transcendence and minimized God's real presence in his world.

Pinnock shows his Arminian affinities throughout this section on Scripture. He denies the Bible teaches there are predestinarian decrees operating behind the scenes assuring that God's will is always done. The Bible shows that God's will is often thwarted, and only a twisted view of God's will can defend that sin, disasters, the Holocaust, et al. somehow result from God's predestination. Pinnock says, "God, in deciding to create humankind, placed higher value on freedom leading to love than on guaranteed conformity to his will" (p. 41).

In response to those who say this view of God demeans his sovereignty, Pinnock asks that we allow the Bible to describe sovereignty, not some Greek, Platonic philosophical ideas. If God sovereignly decided to limit his freedom when it concerns his human creatures, how is it dishonoring to God to affirm this? If God could limit his powers in the incarnation, why could he not limit his powers in allowing the future to be partly settled and partly unsettled? Pinnock is concerned to wrest from the Calvinists and others the equation of 'sovereignty' with 'all-controlling.' God does not have to pull all the strings in the universe and be the cause of all events for him to be sovereign. God can set up the universe in any way that pleases him.

Chapter two concerns "Overcoming a Pagan Inheritance," Pinnock's attempt to rescue theism from its co-option by the Hellenistic category of unchangeableness and biblically alien ideas of perfection. He traces this "pagan legacy" noting that Plato's assumption that God cannot change was current at the time of Christianity's genesis and heavily influenced the early theologians. Pinnock shows this foundation laid in the thinking of Philo and transmitted through Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, resulting in a legacy that determined Western "orthodox" views of God-and which Calvin embraced. In contrast Pinnock appeals for a biblically-based theism, not one so infected by these Greek ideas. He proceeds to outline what he believes the Bible does teach about God's attributes when we subtract the pagan influences. God is: personal, a loving person, communal, changeably faithful, in intimate relationship with the world, sovereign (see prior paragraph on what that entails), temporal (God is somehow in time), omniscient (God knows everything that any being could know), wise and resourceful. Pinnock acknowledges his close affinities with Weslyan and Arminian thinking on many of these issues, though he departs from them in denying exhaustive omniscience. He recognizes this is the openness view's most vulnerable point and where it is most out on a limb, theologically and historically.

Chapter three constitutes Pinnock's philosophical defense of the open view although he repeatedly asserts his belief that conventional theism is more driven by philosophy than is the openness view. But, he insists, the openness view is more philosophically coherent and defensible than the conventional view that involves numerous intellectual contradictions. Again we can do little more than list what Pinnock believes are the essential elements of a biblical philosophy that the open view contributes to a truly Christian world view: being and knowing, the importance of revelation, the world exists by grace, love (humans must have 'real freedom' in order to be able voluntarily to enter loving personal relations with God; how else can there be moral responsibility? how else can we explain the origin of sin?), a preconditioned and dynamic creation, the problem of evil (in creating the world he did, God accepts that things will not always go the way God wants them to; there is not a 'reason' for every evil that occurs), the Holy Spirit (God has entered into our world of spiritual warfare), the future (it is open to what God and humans contribute to it), God's faithfulness (to be involved in our world even at personal cost), and the question of whether it was worth it for God to create (yes, for God has truly loving relationships with free people; they are not robots). Pinnock ends the chapter with a concerted effort to show how the openness view is not a disguised form of process thought (a common accusation by some of his opponents).

Finally, in chapter four Pinnock seeks to show how much more existentially viable the openness view is than conventional theism. It is a theology that one can live with. Not only is it biblically and philosophically sound, but it has the ring of truth in real life situations. In fact, Pinnock avers that most people, even Calvinists, live and pray as if the openness view is true. Who lives, he asks, as if everything a person will ever do has been predetermined, or as if God is as unchangeable as a stone pillar, or is impassible and unaffected by the tragedies of our lives? Why pray if God cannot change or if all events have been predetermined ahead of time? Or can you imagine that when you pray it is because God has predetermined that you will pray that prayer thus rendering you a robot who simply plays that part that the divine playwright has scripted?

No, Pinnock insists the open view is more livable because it affirms: our lives matter (God has not merely cast us for a role), God is our friend who has given us genuine freedom to interact with him and his world, we have freedom (even Calvinists who deny it in principle live as if it were true!), persuasive love (God woos people, he does not coerce them into relationships), sanctification (God makes us holy with our cooperation; his will can be resisted, as we know in experience), call to discipleship (we are held responsible for our growth, which only makes sense in an openness model), perseverance (security is linked to whether we continue to trust Christ), prayer (if God's plans can be changed and the future altered, prayer makes sense), guidance (which we find not in discovering God's blueprint for our lives, but wisely living faithful and loving lives in obedience to his revealed truth), and the problem of evil (how can there be genuine evil if God wills everything?).

I have attempted to present Pinnock's case fairly by entering into his system and showing how he views the terrain around him. Clearly he has written a very polemical book. He has been personally wounded from his attacks by opponents and he is understandably defensive as a result. In the book he observes that he has been called a heretic and worse; from the sting of rejection he appeals for a honest hearing. As someone who has been called a "Judas-goat" in a review of one of my books, I understand the sting of personal attacks and the desire to convince and to appeal. How successful has he been, and will any be convinced?

I think open-minded readers will see that Pinnock has more of a case than the vocal detractors will admit. He has exposed many of the pitfalls of Calvinism. Calvinists tend to be monergists: it's all up to God. Pinnock has presented a brand of synergism: God and humans conspire together. Those who see any type of synergism as detracting from the glory and sovereignty of God will reject what Pinnock has said out of hand. If this is where the keepers of the evangelical gate draw the line, then they will keep Pinnock out. I think this is too bad, for I personally cannot escape what I see as overwhelming evidence for some kind of synergism in the pages of Scripture. To reject it out of hand is not merely bad hermeneutics, it puts one's interpretation of the evidence in the privileged place. The events in Colorado Springs in November show that the Calvinists enjoy hegemony among the evangelicals in the ETS.

Of course, Pinnock's brand of synergism is not the only alternative to the Augustinians' and Calvinists' monergism. Other synergists include many of the Eastern church fathers, Erasmus, Arminius, Wesley, et al., and their successors today. But curiously, why, e.g., have evangelical Calvinists allowed some standard Arminians in their midst while rejecting Pinnock, Sanders, and Boyd? It may be the specific "beyond the pale" element of the openness view (e.g., its denial of God's comprehensive knowledge of the future) or, perhaps, the accumulation of the total package. According to Pinnock's polemics the Calvinists live in a house of cards, and he has mounted the most rigorous attack against their entire superstructure. Their resulting bombast, in his view, shows they have everything to lose and are willing to bring out the heavy guns (expulsion from the ETS) to quell the uprising. [Long-time ETS members may recall a similar action in 1987 that resulted in the departure of Robert Gundry-longtime New Testament professor at Westmont College-from the society after the publication of his Matthew commentary. The membership (gatekeepers) voted that his conclusions were incompatible with an acceptable view of inerrancy, despite his appeals to the contrary.] Pinnock may be too histrionic here (though recall his personal woundedness), but it seems to me his opponents owe evangelicalism more than the mere dismissal from their ranks of Pinnock and his kin.

Was I convinced at every point? Of course not. The openness view asserts that any view of exhaustive foreknowledge implies determinism-a conclusion I fail to see. That is, simply asserting that God's knows all details of the future does not require that God has determined each of the details. Nor does it require that these details could not have been different, given human freedom. I may have a free choice before me-to eat an apple or an orange-and to assert that God know yesterday which I would choose does not in any way lessen my freedom of choice. It simply assigns to God a kind of knowledge that is beyond human knowledge, and I think the Bible implies in various places that God knew ahead of time what free creatures would choose. Pinnock believes this is simply because God is so smart and knows human tendencies so well that he can predict very accurately. I am not convinced. I think God can know the future even when for humans there is nothing yet to be known.

At the same time, I think Pinnock's case is very convincing at many points, and he deserves a fair and concerted analysis from fellow-evangelicals. For example, his view of God is very compelling to me; his explanation of human freedom rings true to Scripture. He appeals for dialogue, and I hope that can emerge, despite the actions last November. I hope Most Moved Mover will be assigned reading in seminary classes where the biblical and philosophical evidence can be examined and put alongside more long-standing standards of "orthodoxy." It will not due to dismiss him as a closet process theologian nor as a left-wing Arminian-both typically anathema to many evangelicals. I hope the monergists can see that granting human freedom and cooperation with God in the processes of this world and salvation does not inherently take away glory or sovereignty from God. But this may be to hope for too much; at least that has been my consistent observation.

William W. Klein, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary