Twenty some years ago I read the groundbreaking book The Openness of God—a collection of essays by evangelical theologians and philosophers who argue that the “biblical” God who does not foreknow the future. This understanding has since become known as “open theism.” I did not find their central thesis particularly controversial. I was already immersed in the writings of Robert W. Jenson, Jürgen Moltmann, and Wolfhart Pannenberg. They maintain that the Church’s understanding of the God of the Bible has been corrupted by Hellenistic philosophy; each sees his task as liberating triune divinity from the constraints of classical theism. Hence I was more than a little sympathetic to the assertion of an open future and its reinterpretation of divine omniscience: God knows everything that can be known, but by definition the future does not exist and therefore cannot be known, not even by an omniscient being. Seems simple enough. Sophisticated advocates of open theism, however, would never explain their position in such simplistic fashion. In his essay “Generic Open Theism,” Alan Rhoda suggests that the open theist is committed to two propositions :
(1) “The future is, as of now and in some respects, causally open, i.e. there are future contingents.”
(2) “The future is, as of now and in some respects, epistemically open for God.”
If genuine future contingents exist (the open theist is thinking specifically of events caused by free creaturely agents), then the future is not settled for God and therefore cannot be infallibly known by him. Just like divine attribute of omnipotence, divine omniscience has its logical limits.
In recent years, however, I have become increasingly skeptical of this innovative construal of Christian doctrine and more appreciative of the traditional understanding of deity as advanced by the Church Fathers and medieval doctors. The critical weakness of open theism, it seems to me, is its failure to properly grasp the divine transcendence, as disclosed by the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo. Note: I am assuming that creatio ex nihilo belongs to a catholic understanding of the Christian God and the world. Without it the trinitarian and christological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries make little to no sense. Precisely in the gospel’s confrontation with the Hellenistic apprehension of divinity, the theologians of the Church found it necessary to simultaneously assert the radical transcendence of God and the absolute gratuity of creation. God is not an inhabitant of the universe, nor does he exist in interdependent union with the world. He is the absolute, unconditioned, and ineffable source of all that is. He transcends creaturely categories because he creates these categories. His relation to the world, therefore, cannot be captured in the notation of symbolic logic. Catholic theologians did not learn the creatio ex nihilo from the Greek philosophers, who would have and did find the Christian doctrine of creation incoherent. They found it hidden, if you will, in the tohu wa-bohu of Gen 1:1-3, as they sought to proclaim the distinctiveness of the God of the gospel within Hellenistic culture (see my series on “The Christian Distinction” and “Creatio ex Nihilo“). The world is not divine and it might not have been; yet God eternally is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Creation of the cosmos from out of nothing is the key to grasping a proper understanding of divine transcendence and the mysteries of the Christian faith. Consider the “metaphysical” God of the Creeds and Fathers, as described by Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart:
To speak of God properly, then … is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being. In one sense he is “beyond being,” if by “being” one means that totality of discrete, finite things. In another sense he is “being itself,” in that he is the inexhaustible source of all reality, the absolute upon which the contingent is always utterly dependent, the unity and simplicity that underlies and sustains the diversity of finite and composite things. Infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss, from whom we are, by whom we know and are known, and in whom we find our only true consummation. (The Experience of God, p. 30)
All this is who the biblical God is and must be if he is the transcendent and infinite Creator who has spoken the cosmos into being ex nihilo.
By way of unpacking the differences between the Deity of open theism and the Deity of the classical Christian tradition, I thought I would direct our attention to an incisive essay by the Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, “The Involvement of God,” included in his book God Matters. McCabe reasserts the traditional understanding of deity, particularly as articulated in the theology of St Thomas Aquinas. He eschews divorce between the God of the Bible and the Deity of classical metaphysics:
One of my first claims, then, is that the God of what I have called the ‘tradition’, the God of Augustine and Aquinas in the west, is precisely the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who is not a god, not a powerful inhabitant of the universe, but the creator, the answer to the question ‘What does it all mean?’, ‘Why anything anyway?’ This was essentially the question asked by the Jews, at least from Second Isaiah onwards, the question which, once asked, could not be unasked (except with great philosophical ingenuity), and this is the question which for mainstream Christian tradition gives us meaning for the word ‘God’. (God Matters, p. 42)
Not a powerful inhabitant of the universe! In my reading of recent atheistic critiques of theism and Christianity, I have been struck by the assumption that Christians really believe that God is some great sky-person, just larger and more powerful than created persons. Why do atheists think this is what Christianity believes? Because that’s what popular Christianity too often teaches. It’s as if the first 1500 years of theological and metaphysical reflection have been suppressed by Christians themselves, all in the name of recovering so-called “biblical” religion. In its increasingly sectarian versions, “biblical” theism has only made Christianity an easier target. Read through, for example, the various blog articles on God by open theist Greg Boyd. Boyd tells us we must redefine the classical divine attributes of transcendence, omniscience, omnipotence, immutability, impassibility. But why? Given my limited acquaintance with Boyd’s work, I can only tender an educated guess or two.
As a modern Protestant evangelical, Boyd does not feel bound to the dogmatic tradition of the Church catholic, yet at the same time he does feel bound to a literal (and, in my view, naïve) reading of the Holy Scriptures, at least as it pertains to their rendering of deity (see, e.g., “How Classical Theology Gets it Wrong“). One may wonder why anyone who does not stand within the theological, sacramental, liturgical tradition of the Church should acknowledge the Old and New Testaments as inspired and authoritative, given that the same Church that canonized these writings as Scripture (providing us, as well, with the hermeneutical rules by which to read them as Scripture and not just as historical artifacts) also taught us that the trinitarian God possesses the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, immutability, and impassibility (see “Trinity, Eucharist, Tradition“). But this problem is not unique to Boyd but shared by his fellow evangelicals, many of whom do not (yet) embrace open theism. We must look elsewhere.
In his article “The Ultimate Criteria for Theology,” Boyd states that proper Christian theology is grounded in Christ: “All of our speculation and debate about such things as God’s character, power, and glory must be done with our focus on Jesus Christ—more specifically, on the decisive act by which he reveals God and redeems humanity, his death on the cross.” I agree. So would the Church Fathers and medieval Doctors, all of whom decisively interpreted God’s moral and personal character through the Crucified. But what they did not do is limit themselves to the New Testament story when deducing the metaphysical attributes of divinity. They didn’t do that for the simple reason that it cannot be done—at least, it cannot be done if one is going to talk about the the transcendent Maker of heaven and earth and not a being akin to the mythological deities of paganism. At some point the theologian must move beyond the biblical narrative and do philosophical reflection grounded in the ontological distinction between Creator and creature (see David B. Hart, “The Destiny of Christian Metaphysics,” and David Burrell, Knowing the Unknowable God). This is precisely what Boyd does not do. He seems to believe that if we begin our thinking with Jesus, we will end up with doctrines resembling the ecumenical doctrines of the patristic Church (minus, of course, all the Greek stuff). The implausibility of this expectation becomes apparent upon second or third glance. Give the Bible to a scholarly Martian who knows nothing about Christianity and ask him to reconstruct the early faith of the Church. Try as he will, he will never think up the orthodox trinitarian faith as defined by the first four ecumenical councils, nor will he even get close to an understanding of the transcendent Creator who makes the world from out of nothing. He might not even get to the subordinationist unitarianianism that characterized some of the second-century Church Fathers. The clear dogmatic assertion that Jesus of Nazareth is God, of one being with the Father, will always elude our scholarly Martian. The essential doctrines that define historic Christianity are simply not read off the surface of Holy Scripture.
Back to McCabe. McCabe trenchantly criticizes the suffering God as presented in the theology of Jürgen Moltmann. The triune God of classical Christianity, because he exists as pure actuality and the infinite plenitude of Love and Being, exists beyond suffering and passivity. He does not “learn from or experience the world and, in general, cannot be affected by it” (p. 44). When we read something like this, we begin to worry. Does this not make God indifferent to the human plight and distance him from the world? We raise these questions, says McCabe, only because we do not truly understand what it means for God to be God:
Our only way of being present to another’s suffering is by being affected by it, because we are outside the other person. We speak of ‘sympathy’ or ‘compassion’, just because we want to say that it is almost as though we were not outside the other, but living her or his life, experiencing her or his suffering. A component of pity is frustration as having, in the end, to remain outside.
Now, the creator cannot in this way ever be outside his creature; a person’s act of being as well as every action done has to be an act of the creator. If the creator is the reason for everything that is, there can be no actual being which does not have the creator as its centre holding it in being. In our compassion we, in our feeble way, are seeking to be what God is all the time: united with and within the life of our friend. We can say in the psalm ‘The Lord is compassion’ but a sign that this is metaphorical language is that we can also say that the Lord has no need of compassion; he has something more wonderful, he has his creative act in which he is ‘closer to the suffering than she is to herself’. (pp. 44-45)
The conviction that if God truly loves mankind he needs to suffer its sufferings and experience its experiences betrays the anthropomorphism that drives much of popular Christianity. To speak of God as “experiencing” the world immediately posits the world as external to God. Deity becomes a being who stands alongside the created order as an other. But the infinite and transcendent God knows the sufferings of every creature, not as a being external to creatures, but precisely as the eternal act that sustains every creature in existence. “The God of Augustine and Aquinas,” McCabe writes, “precisely by being wholly transcendent, extra ordinem omnium entium existens, is more intimately involved with each creature than any other creature could be. God could not be other to creatures in the way that they must be to each other. At the heart of every creature is the source of esse, making it to be and to act (ST 1a, 8, 1, c). … So I think it makes perfect sense to say both that it is not in the nature of God to suffer and also that it is not in the nature of God to lack the most intimate possible involvement with the sufferings of his creatures. To safeguard the compassion of God there is no need to resort to the idea that God as he surveys the history of mankind suffers with us in a literal sense—though in some spiritual way” (pp. 45-46).
I have to admit that when I first encountered the above argument it really shook me. Had I so misunderstood the classical understanding of God? The answer was … yes … and now I am playing catch-up.
But if God cannot suffer in his divine nature, what about the cross? Doesn’t God suffer as the man Jesus? Yes! McCabe answers. If God has truly united divine nature and human nature in the one hypostasis of Jesus Christ, then, following the Council of Chalcedon, “we can say quite literally that God suffered hunger and thirst and torture and death. We can say these things because the Son of God assumed a human nature in which it makes sense to predicate these things of him. In other words, the traditional doctrine, while rejecting the idea that it is in the nature of God to be capable of suffering, does affirm literally that God suffered in a perfectly ordinary sense, the sense in which you or I suffer” (p. 46; also see Hart’s essay “No Shadow of Turning“).
And this brings us to the last part of McCabe’s essay. If Jesus Christ is the inhomination of the divine Son in human history, then we may properly speak of his life in Judea and Galilee as the story of God: “The story of Jesus is nothing other than the triune life of God projected onto our history or enacted sacramentally in our history, so that it becomes story” (p. 48). And it is this story that reveals the immanent life and eternal relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
This is all fairly traditional, though articulated in a modern idiom. But then McCabe makes a surprising claim: “there is no such thing as the pre-existent Christ” (p. 49). What the heck‽ But we need to be patient and hear out the theologian. McCabe acknowledges the orthodox intent of pre-existent Christ-language, but believes that the language betrays a confusion of divine eternity and created temporality:
To speak of the pre-existent Christ is to imply that God has a life-story, a divine story, other than the story of the incarnation. It is to suppose that in some sense there was a Son of God existing from the eternal ages who at some point in his eternal career assumed a human nature and was made. First the son of God pre-existed as just the Son of God and then later he was the Son of God made man. (p. 49)
Oops. I do not know how often I have preached and taught about the Incarnation in this way. I think it’s fairly normal, though. “God became Man,” we confess. This is the diction of Scripture and the creeds. And yet underlying this way of talking is the assumption that we can speak of the eternal life of God in temporal terms, without acknowledging the inappropriateness of our language. We sound like we are referring to a “before” and “after” in the Godhead; we probably even think we are referring to a “before” and “after.” Once upon a time, the fairy tale begins, there was a time when God existed in a discarnate state, and then he stepped into the realm of time and space, took upon himself human flesh, and began a new and different way of being. McCabe continues:
I think this only needs to be stated to be seen as incompatible at least with the traditional doctrine of God coming to us through Augustine and Aquinas. There can be no succession in the eternal God, no change. Eternity is not, of course, a very long time; it is not time at all. Eternity is not timeless in the sense that an instant is timeless–for an instant is timeless simply in being the limit of a stretch of time, just as a point has no length not because it is very very short but because it is the limit of a length. No: eternity is timeless because it totally transcends time. To be eternal is just to be God. God’s life is neither past nor present, nor even simultaneous with any event, any clock, any history. The picture of the Son of God ‘becoming’ at a certain point in the divine duration the incarnate Son of God, ‘coming down from heaven’, makes a perfectly good metaphor but could not be literally true. There was, from the point of view of God’s life, no such thing as a moment at which the eternal Son of God was not Jesus of Nazareth. There could not be any moments in God’s life. The eternal life of Jesus as such could not precede, follow or be simultaneous with his human life. There is no story of God ‘before’ the story of Jesus. This point would not, of course, be grasped by those for whom God is an inhabitant of the universe, subject to experience and to history. I am not, need I say, suggesting that it can be grasped intelligibly by anyone, but in the traditional view it is the mystery that we affirm when we speak of God. From the point of view of God, then sub specie eternitatis, no sense can be given to the idea that at some point in God’s life-story the Son became incarnate. (pp. 49-50; emphasis mine)
Time belongs to the created order. As the aphorism goes: “Time is God’s way of stopping everything from happening at once.” God, as God, does not live in time; hence his eternity cannot be literally stated in temporal, or even atemporal, terms. To speak of eternity is not to assert anything positive about God but simply to deny the importation of temporal movement into the Godhead. Even when we speak of the Deity as apprehending all of history in an eternal “now,” we have to be careful. Is not “now” qualified by “before” and “after”? Our language for the divine life is inherently tensed, but God surpasses all tenses. This is why we find ourselves speaking nonsense when we try to talk about God foreknowing the future (see “Does God Know What Hasn’t Happened Yet?“). We have all heard God’s relation to time characterized this way:
But it’s only an image. When we speak of divine eternity, we do not know what we are talking about! Speculate as we may, we cannot conceive the relationship between God in his timelessness and the world in its timefulness. It’s infinitely more difficult than trying to imagine the encounter between two- and three-dimensional beings. “Eternity” is an apophatic term that introduces us to the ineffable mystery of the uncreated Creator. When open theists speak of God not knowing the future, they reduce divinity to the status of a being and subject him to the flow of created time.
And this brings us to McCabe’s second criticism of the “pre-existent Christ.” Let’s place ourselves back in history when Moses was alive. From Moses’ point of view, it makes perfect sense to say “Jesus does not exist” or “Jesus of Nazareth is not yet.” It makes perfect sense, because the conception and birth of Jesus have not yet happened. The future does not exist, which, as McCabe notes, “is what makes it future” (p. 50). Just so, it makes no logical sense to say that “the future already exists for God.” That would to attribute to God a philosophical mistake. Just as Moses can literally declare, “Jesus does not exist,” so Moses can also simultaneously declare, with equal literal truth, “The Son of God does exist.” Given Moses’ specific location in time, both propositions are true.
But now consider the difference between saying “The Son of God exists” and “The Son of God exists now.” As we have seen, Moses could have spoken truly the first statement; but he could not have spoken truly the second. That little “now” makes all the difference. This second proposition, “which attributes temporal existence (‘now’) to the Son of God,” could only become true when Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary. When Moses lived, it was not yet true that the Son of God now existed. He had not yet enfleshed himself in time as a created being. McCabe concludes: “The simple truth is that apart from incarnation the Son of God exists at no time at all, at no ‘now’, but in eternity, in which he acts upon all time but is not himself ‘measured by it’, as Aquinas would say. ‘Before Abraham was, I am'” (p. 50).
I do not have the philosophical smarts to unpack McCabe’s reasoning as it pertains to the questions of divine omniscience, foreknowledge, and predestination, though I think he would immediately jump on the “fore-” and “pre-.” In fact I know he would. Consider what he says about predestination in his book God Still Matters:
Certainly, a race or a fight that is fixed beforehand is a bogus race or fight; and a human life that has been fixed beforehand is a bogus human life. What has happened here is that we are taking the ‘beforehand’ too literally. Predestination is not something we have from birth, from way back, ‘beforehand’. We do not have predestination at all; it is the plan in the mind of God, it is nothing whatever in us. Predestination exists in eternity and only in eternity, in the eternal timeless mind of God. It is not before or after or even simultaneous with anything. When we plan something and then carry out the plan, there is first the plan and then later the execution. But this cannot be so with God. God has no lifetime, no before and after. There are not times or dates to the thoughts and acts of God. His predestining Jesus to ascend into heaven does not come before his bringing Jesus to heaven. Nothing in God comes before anything else, they are all the one thing which is simply the eternal timeless life of God himself. So we must not take the ‘pre’ in ‘predestination’ literally. What is predestined happens but it doesn’t happen later than its predestination because predestination is only in the timeless mind of God. It is always wrong and a muddle to say ‘What I just did must have been predestined thirty years ago’ because predestination, like the thought of God, has no date at all. It does not mean that we move in predestinate grooves that are there beforehand, like tram lines. (pp. 184-185)
I hope others will read Herbert McCabe and perhaps begin to think these matters through. Of course, I suppose we could all spend the next decade or two reading the Summa Theologiae …