Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity
Reviewed in conjunction with No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Frame) and Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the Undermining of Biblical Christianity (Piper, Taylor, Helseth).
The ongoing controversy over open theism (also known as free-will theism) has resulted in the publication of numerous books and articles on the subject (see Robert A. Pyne and Stephen R. Spencer, “A Critique of Free-Will Theism, Part 1,” Bibliotheca Sacra 158 [July–September 2001]: 259–86; and idem, “A Critique of Free-Will Theism, Part 2” Bibliotheca Sacra 158 [October–December 2001]: 387–405). This review evaluates three recent books by classical theists who have responded to open theism.
Frame’s No Other God is a winsome, yet thorough reply to John Sanders, Greg Boyd, Clark Pinnock, and other open theists. Frame, professor of systematic theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary, begins with a description of open theism’s essential beliefs and theological heritage. He sees precursors to this movement in some Greek philosophers and in Socinianism, which emphasized libertarian free will. He also identifies many influences among modern theologians, arguing that open theism is distinctive not because of its ideas, but for its introduction of those ideas within evangelicalism.
In the remainder of the book Frame responds to open theism by discussing a series of questions. Is love God’s most important attribute? Is God’s will the ultimate explanation of everything? Is God’s will irresistible? Do we have genuine freedom? Is God in time? Does God change? Does God suffer? Does God know everything in advance? Throughout the book Frame demonstrates the emotional appeal of the traditional view, which does not present an ugly, autocratic God, but a loving and powerful God, who is worthy of trust when all else is tenuous. Frame is at his best when defending the doctrines of providence and spontaneous (as opposed to libertarian) freedom. His presentation is clear, nontechnical, and biblically grounded. He also offers helpful and balanced discussions of divine immutability and impassibility.
Geisler and House adopt a sharper tone in The Battle for God, evidenced by renaming their opponents “neotheists.” Rather than focusing on what might be the linchpin of open theism—its view of human freedom, for example—Geisler and House address a variety of issues that may or may not be of concern to the open theists themselves. With chapters on God’s omniscience, eternality, immutability, simplicity, impassibility, sovereignty, and relationship to the world, Geisler and House demonstrate that open theism is distinct from classical theism. That conclusion is not new—open theists themselves have acknowledged that fact—and the separate treatment of these topics tends to reduce the overall coherence of the book’s argument. However, this presentation remains helpful in that it highlights some of the major differences between the two camps and offers clear responses from a traditional perspective.
In Beyond the Bounds Piper, Taylor, and Helseth have assembled excellent essays in response to open theism. Many are revised editions of articles that first appeared in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, and these tend to be somewhat cumbersome, though helpful with regard to specific points of disagreement. For example A. B. Canaday offers approximately fifty pages on the anthropomorphic character of God’s revelation. However, some of the best chapters are new to this work. One of these, by Wheaton College professor Mark Talbot, represents a personal testimony of theological development in the midst of suffering. Talbot’s conclusion—that compatibilist freedom (rather than the libertarian freedom assumed by open theists) is both biblically defensible and existentially satisfying—demonstrates the pastoral significance of traditional theism with its high view of divine providence. Piper reinforces the point, expressing “pastoral dismay” at the counsel and comfort offered by open theists. He concludes, “As a pastor who longs to be biblical and God-centered and Christ-exalting and eternally helpful to my people, I see open theism as theologically ruinous, dishonoring to God, belittling to Christ, and pastorally hurtful” (p. 384).
Many of the articles in Beyond the Bounds are directed toward recent institutional debates about open theism, particularly within the Evangelical Theological Society. Now that those debates have at least temporarily abated, the book’s pastoral exhortations remain especially vital. The article by Notre Dame University’s William C. Davis, “Why Open Theism Is Flourishing Now,” is worth highlighting. Davis describes several factors in the cultural climate of American evangelicalism that makes open theism attractive. These include a distrust of institutional authority, “infatuation” with personal freedom, and impatience with mystery. Davis rightly calls for a stronger relationship between academic theology and the local church within evangelicalism.
Those who are looking for a simple, direct response to open theism will probably find Frame’s book the most helpful of these three. However, readers will find the most thorough treatment in Beyond the Bounds, which advances the debate and deserves the careful attention of evangelical leaders.