Calvinism versus Arminianism is one of the biggest debates within the Protestant world with gallons of ink and blood being spilled over the past five-hundred years. While I tend to be on the Arminianism side of that debate, I have also come to the conclusion that the debate itself has outlived its usefulness and should be put to rest. In my last post, I summarized a bit of the Eastern Orthodox approach to the issue as seen through the writings of Brad Jersak. Today I would like to talk about open theism as seen through Greg Boyd’s book “Is God To Blame? Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering.”
Greg Boyd is a Mennonite pastor at the Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, MN and a leading proponent of the Christus Victor view of the atonement. He is also a major proponent of open theism which challenges Calvinism and variations of Arminianism. While I know Greg has other books about open theism, I decided to read his “Is God to Blame?” for two reasons. First and foremost was the fact that I found the book on sale for a dollar and, well, who can pass up a deal like that?! 🙂 Secondly, this book deals with the application of open theism rather than just focusing on the theoretical. Being an applied theologian, I quite like books that seek to put into practice the theories proposed by theological studies. As Elder Paisios the Athonite once said, “The goal of reading is the application, in our lives, of what we read.” 🙂
As the title suggests, the focus of Greg’s book “Is God to Blame?” is providing an alternative to the problem of suffering normally proposed by theologians and pastors. Namely, a lot of well-meaning folks in the world today hold to a view of God which states that he knows and controls every little thing in the universe. This “blueprint” view of God states that God, as the sovereign King of Kings, knows, controls and/or predestines what I’m going to type before I type it. This is a God who is not only concerned with spiritual salvation, but with every action done by each person on earth throughout history – not to mention all the animals, plants, weather, etc. Accordingly, everything that happens in life – including hurtful actions such as rape, war, murder, etc. – happens for a reason with God either allowing or controlling the events.
Traditionally this view of the sovereignty of God has held by proponents of Calvinism. However there are also Arminian theologians and pastors who agree with this blueprint worldview – the main difference between the two groups being on the extent of freedom granted by God to humanity (i.e. a little bit or none). Some Arminians, I must note, hold to a view that God foreknows the future, but does not orchestrate the future. Accordingly, these folks would not fall into the blueprint worldview challenged by Greg’s book.
In lieu of the blueprint worldview, Greg proposes a view in which God grants freedom to humanity to make choices and act contrary to that which God would prefer. After all, how could there be love if the lover has no choice but to love? Love is only love if the lover has a choice to walk away but doesn’t choose do to so.
While people will typically agree that love requires a choice, they also get nervous about a world in which everything is possible. Deep inside we want to know that someone or something has control as we want to believe that everything that happens has a reason. If things just happened with no reason, then life would be meaningless with no hope of redemption. (this is one of the problems with atheism, but that’s a different topic). In order to keep things in order, we must create a God who has everything under control.
I say “create a God” because the Scriptures allow for another view of God that falls outside the blueprint world. Namely the Scriptures allows for a God who intimately involved with his creation on a personal level and allows his creation to change his mind. Just look at God’s interactions with Abraham and Moses. Both of these forefathers of the faith wrestled with God and challenged his actions. Rather than telling them to shut up, God encouraged the debate and even agreed to change his plans.
Now before you quote Malachi 3:6 at me (i.e. “For I the Lord do not change…”) and burn me at the stake, allow me to explain. God himself doesn’t change – nor does he give up on his promises. He is always the same God today, yesterday and tomorrow. However just because he is the same God, it doesn’t mean that his actions within history can’t change. After all, he was the one who broke into history and changed everything (i.e. Jesus).
In his book, Greg explores the concept of how we came to see God as a God who never changes (i.e. the view has its roots in Greek philosophy). And then sets forth a view of God who is like a great chess player who knows every possible move on the board and can foresee what his proponent is going to do. And, just like in a chess game, the moves which God makes are in direct reaction to the moves that we humans, as free agents, make. Only God, being infinitely smarter than us, can take into account every possible variable in all of creation – the movement of a butterfly in that country, a human choice here, the solar actions of a star over there, etc. – before making a move.
In other words, God’s overall desire and goal will come to pass. We humans may derail or slow down the process, but it will happen. The forces of evil, something Greg does talk about as well, may also try to stop God’s plans – and perhaps may even slow them down – but in the end God will win. Period.
This view of God has the potential to change how we view our lives and comfort people who are struggling. Rather than blaming God for the crap of the world, we can recognize that there is an evil being out there trying to destroy humanity and that we humans all have the choice on whether or not we are going to follow good or evil. We also don’t go around telling people whose young son was murder or raped or stolen that everything happens for a reason. Rather we cry with them. We mourn with them.
We know that God himself entered into the pain of this world and suffered with us. He didn’t stay away, hidden safely away in his castle in the sky. Rather he came into our broken, crappy world so that we would have a savior/friend/God who knew what it is like. And we also know that God will win with pain, evil, sin and death being destroyed.
Some people might not like this view of life. And that’s ok. For me, though, I think there is something of value in Greg’s view of open theism. It fits well with my view take on the atonement and the Kingdom of God as well as with my typical pastoral approach to life. Don’t get me wrong, I still have questions about open theism. At the moment, if you pushed it, I would have to say that I typically see God as being outside of time which allows for him to foresee what is going to happen without having to control every detail. Open theism, as I understand it, still places God within time rather than outside of time – which is a major issue to me since I see time as being something created… but that is another post for another time. 😀
In conclusion, I would definitely recommend reading Greg Boyd’s book “Is God To Blame? Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering.” At 197 pages, it isn’t that long – but, do be warned, it is a heavy read as it is dealing with a complex issue. As the title says, it is a book that goes “beyond pat answers” into the deep waters of the mystery of life.