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The God Who Relates: A Response To John Sanders, The God Who Risks

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In recent years, a group of evangelicals have criticized the traditional or classical view of God and have proposed what they have called the “openness” view. At its core, the openness view affirms “two basic convictions: love is the most important quality we attribute to God, and love is more than care and commitment; it involves being sensitive and responsive as well.”1 Pinnock seems to add a third basic conviction of the view, that the future is open to God. “Philosophically speaking, if choices are real and freedom significant, future decisions cannot be exhaustively foreknown. This is because the future is not determinate but shaped in part by human choices. The future is not fixed like the past, which can be known completely. The future does not yet exist and therefore cannot be infallibly anticipated, even by God. Future decisions cannot in every way be foreknown, because they have not yet been made. God knows everything that can be known – but God’s foreknowledge does not include the undecided.”2

In a recent issue of Christianity Today, an unsigned editorial entitled “God vs. God” presented the issue as “two competing theologies vie for the future of evangelicalism.”3 The editorial concludes with a call for evangelical theologians in both camps to do their homework, providing four issues for further research.4 First, “openness theologians [need to] take as full an account of the biblical language about God’s foreknowledge and immutability as of the Greek philosophical influences that shaped classical theism.”5 Second, “classical theists [must] return to a more robustly biblical approach to talking about God.”6 Third, “classical theists [must] make a full account of the meaning embedded in the Bible’s anthropomorphisms – not to explain them away but to unpack them, and not to treat them dismissively.”7 Fourth, “both sides [need to avoid reading] the words of Scripture outside the context of twenty centuries of interpretation.”8 This final call is particularly relevant to American evangelicals. We need to read the Scripture with the insights provided by the history of interpretation. We must avoid the tendency toward individualism in biblical interpretation. Novelty must be checked against the voices of the past. We need to remember, as the editorial reminds us, that “the Holy Spirit has not been snoozing since he inspired the New Testament.”9

As an evangelical theologian who holds to the traditional view of God, I have chosen this paper as a first installment on my homework assignment. But before I do, please allow me to present my position at the outset. I am a classical theist in the Baptist tradition. I believe that the biblical revelation presents a God who is absolutely sovereign over his creation. Nothing happens in this world apart from his sovereign will. God’s knowledge of the future is as comprehensive as his knowledge of the past and the present. The future is thus not open to God and his plans are never at risk. This conviction is not based simply upon a proof-text or two, but upon my reading of the Scripture within a community that understands the Scripture in this way. I believe that the openness view of God is inconsistent with the overall tenor of the biblical text.

One of the proponents of the openness view of God is John Sanders. Sanders wrote the chapter entitled “Historical Considerations” in The Openness of God. In his recent book, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence, Sanders argues that the biblical view of God’s relationship with his people and his world is that God is a risk taker.10 For Sanders, risk taking is essential to a personal God who relates on a personal level with his created beings. The traditional view of God’s providence which holds to exhaustive knowledge of all things and comprehensive control over God’s creation, according to Sanders, results in an impersonal, distant, non-relational deity.

Sanders begins by positing out two basic models of divine providence. According to the “no-risk” view, “no event ever happens without God’s specifically selecting it to happen. Nothing is too insignificant for God’s meticulous and exhaustive control.”11 This is the model of classical theism. The “risk” view of providence begins with the assumption that “if God is in some respects conditioned by his creatures, then God takes risks in bringing about this particular type of world . . . God has established certain boundaries within which creatures operate. But God sovereignly decides not to control each and every event, and some things go contrary to what God intends, and may not turn out completely as God desires.”12 According to this model, “God sovereignly wills to have human persons become collaborators with him in achieving the divine project of mutual relations of love.”13 Thus, Sanders also calls his model “relational theism.”14 Sanders insists that “the key element in the debate over providence is not the type of omniscience God has but the kind of sovereignty God has decided to exercise.”15

Sanders has developed the question is such a way as to make the contrast between the two views clear, perhaps too much so. Are these the only possibilities? Is it true that risk and relationship are so intertwined that to deny risk is to deny that God enters into relationship with his creatures? In short, does the affirmation that God exercises sovereign control over all the minute details of his creation mean that he cannot enter into a personal relationship with human? Is it not possible that a loving God relates on a personal and intimate level with his creatures and yet maintains sovereign control over his creation? I believe this is the model of God we find in Scripture and that Sanders has set up a false dichotomy.

In a paper of this size, it is impossible to deal comprehensively with a nearly 400 page book. I’ve chosen to deal only with several of the biblical texts Sanders discusses in support of his view. One of the strengths of his book is that Sanders does not hide from the texts that seem to contradict his view. At issue is the plausibility of his interpretation of those texts.

Sanders begins his treatment of the biblical data with a discussion of the creation account in the first two chapters of Genesis. He draws several implications from God’s creative activity. First, “God freely creates an environment and sovereignly establishes boundaries that are ‘good.’ ”16 Second, “the doctrine of creation draws a strong distinction between God and his creatures as well as a significant relationship between them.”17 As the Creator who speaks things into existence, we clearly see an “infinitely qualitative distinction” between creator and created, yet this creator reveals himself in a dynamic personal relationship with his creatures. Third, “God establishes structures over which humans have no control without thereby eliminating all freedom and development.”18

God established boundaries for the first humans. He gave them freedom to eat from all the trees with the one explicit prohibition against eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Here, Sanders insists, is the introduction of sovereign risk. In this environment, rejection of God is implausible, but God has taken a risk by allowing the possibility of their disobedience. In responding to the serpent’s temptation, Adam and Eve make the implausible choice; they choose against God. “Now God has to adjust his project in response to this horrible turn of events.”19

There is little in this reading of creation which would not be affirmed by classical theists, up to the suggestion that the fall caught God by surprise. Even Sanders admits that God has established structures in creation over which humans have no control, and that he has done so without violating their freedom. But his reading of the fall is particularly problematic. He assumes that this rejection of God by his human creatures caught him by surprise and necessitated his response to their action. On the contrary, classical theists affirm that God knew in advance what their choice would be and that he had already planned for their redemption.

According to Sanders, the following chapters of Genesis demonstrate that “despite God’s continued efforts to work with his creatures, sin becomes ever more pervasive.”20 Ultimately God is grieved by their rebellion and “regrets his decision to go ahead with the creation in light of these tragic consequences. He is extremely disappointed at how things are turning out.”21

Sanders makes much of God’s choice of Noah. In him, Sanders says, “God ‘saw’ someone in whom he could take pride, someone who was going in the direction God intended. Consequently, God does not give up hope and will continue his project through Noah’s family. In Noah God finds a possibility for a future that is open despite the pervasiveness of sin.”22 According to this interpretation, God saw a righteous man and was pleased to have someone he could trust to preserve his project.

The text of Genesis 6, however, seems to demand an entirely different reading. As Sanders quotes accurately, “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen 6:8)23. If Noah found favor/grace in God’s eyes because of Noah’s righteousness, then God’s grace toward him was earned and thus was not grace at all. Rather, as the following verses imply, Noah found favor in God’s eyes and, as a result of God’s gracious initiative, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time” (Gen 6:9). I believe that the order of these two verses is significant. Righteousness is due to God’s grace; it is never earned by works. (“Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation.” Rom 4:4)

Sanders interprets the Abraham story similarly. He says, “In the course of his life, Abraham develops a relationship with God. Abraham’s faith in God matures by fits and starts, and God’s confidence in Abraham grows. The divine goal of developing people who love and trust him in such a way that they collaborate with God toward the fulfillment of the project finds success in this patriarch.”24 But, according to the biblical record, we are introduced to Abraham when God calls him (Gen 12:1; Acts 7:2-3).25 We know nothing about Abraham prior to this call of God, which seems to imply that Abraham responds to God’s gracious initiative. Further, Abraham’s walk of faith is anything but consistent. It seems much better to read the Abraham account as an example of God’s faithfulness to him, in spite of his “fits and starts,” rather than an increasing of Abraham’s faith that leads to God’s increasing confidence in him.

When he comes to the Joseph stories, Sanders admits the plausibility of a “risk-free” reading of the text. However, he insists that “Joseph’s remarks in Genesis 45 should be read in light of his more reflective comments in 50:19-21.”26 In Genesis 50:20, “Joseph suggests that what they intended for evil, God intended for good. I take this to mean that God has brought something good out of their evil actions.”27 That seems to be exactly what Joseph says here, but what about Joseph’s interpretation of his brothers’ actions in Genesis 45? Sanders insists that in the earlier text, “Joseph plays down the human factor and elevates the divine factor in order to allay their fears. After reconciliation is assured, Joseph remarks that what they intended for evil, God intended for good.”28

If I understand him correctly, Sanders is insisting that Joseph was duplicitous in his dealings with his brothers. In order to “allay their fears,” he stressed that it was God who was responsible for his current condition. Of course, Joseph did not really believe this, as his later comments make clear. Joseph really meant to say that he was in Egypt because of his brothers’ sin. Joseph meant to say that his rise to power was not due to God’s grace but due to his hard work and initiative. God used both the evil that Joseph’s brothers had performed and the good that Joseph had achieved and worked all of it for good.

The language that Joseph uses in Genesis 45 is unambiguous and clear. This is one of the strongest texts supporting a comprehensive view of God’s sovereignty, or at least it records Joseph’s conviction about God’s sovereignty. In verse 5, Joseph tells his brothers that they should not be distressed and angry with themselves because they sold him into slavery. He never denies their responsibility for his condition. He never denies that their behavior was sin. However, he also tells them that “it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” Apparently Joseph is attributing his life experiences to the sovereign will of his God. But Joseph is not yet through. In verse 7, he tells them, “But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” Note that it was God who sent Joseph to Egypt, at least in Joseph’s interpretation of the events. Finally, in verse 8, Joseph says, “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God.” These are strong affirmations of God’s sovereign control over Joseph’s life. Does Joseph really mean to say that God is the cause of his being in Egypt? Does he mean to say that even the sinful acts of his brothers were part of God’s plan for his life? I think so.

Then in Genesis 50:19-20, Joseph again reassures his brothers after the death of their father. He tells them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Apparently in Joseph’s view of God’s sovereignty, humans are responsible for their evil choices (intentions) but ultimately God’s intention will be fulfilled. Apart from some theological agenda, there seems no reason to use one of these texts to reinterpret the other, especially since they both seem to say the same thing.

In a section entitled “The Potter and the Clay: An Examination of So-Called Pancausality Texts,” Sanders agues that the traditional view has treated texts like Jeremiah 18:6, Isaiah 29:16; Proverbs 16:9; 21:1 as “clear didactic passages” and has over-generalized from them. 29 He cites as an example, Calvin’s inference that God sending the storm that caused Jonah’s trouble at sea means that “no wind ever arises or increases without God’s express command.”30 According to Sanders, this is to attempt to prove too much. Just because God sent one storm does not mean that every storm is due to God’s specific intentional decree.

Of course, Sanders is correct. But Calvin’s view that God exercises control over the wind and storms is not based solely upon the text in Jonah.31 Rather, it is based upon Calvin’s understanding of God’s revelation of himself in the whole of Scripture. And this is exactly the point. Sanders’ view is that Scripture does not reveal such a God. It is this thesis he is attempting to prove.

So how does Sanders deal with Jeremiah 18?

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2 “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” 3 So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. 4 But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.

5 Then the word of the LORD came to me: 6 “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?” declares the LORD. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7 If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, 8 and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. 9 And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, 10 and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.

11 “Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, ‘This is what the LORD says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.’ 12 But they will reply, ‘It’s no use. We will continue with our own plans; each of us will follow the stubbornness of his evil heart.’ ”

Sanders stresses that the emphasis in this text is on God’s prerogative to change his plans regarding Israel. “Jeremiah repeatedly speaks of the conditional (‘if’) in connection to both the clay (Israel) and the potter (God). If Israel repents, then God will relent. If Israel is recalcitrant, then God may change his mind regarding the promised blessing (vv. 7-10) . . . The fact that Israel can take the initiative violates the metaphor, since clay cannot take initiative. So the relationship between Yahweh and Israel is not exactly like that of a potter and clay.”32

Well, of course not. This is a metaphor. God is using an analogy to communicate with his people. How should we interpret the metaphor? Is not part of the emphasis that God is the creator of his people? Is not part of the force of the metaphor that clay cannot thwart the plans of the potter? Sanders argues that if “the clay does not turn out as anticipated, the potter changes his mind and works the clay into something else. But why would the clay not turn out the way God intended? Either because God is not a skilled enough potter, or because there is some defect in the clay.”33 In this case, the defect is obviously in the clay. It is called “sin.” Rather than thwarting God’s plan, however, this metaphor seems to teach that God continues to be the potter. He continues to mold and remold his clay as he intends. Sanders’ view empties the metaphor of its point of comparison, since he takes both the clay and potter as active agents.

Sanders’ conclusion summarizes his view.

The so-called pancausality texts refer to specific actions of God and must not be understood as generalizations about divine action. Moreover, God is indeed a potter and a king but one whose clay and subjects sometimes cooperate with and sometimes rebel against divine initiatives. At times the rebellious subjects even kill the king’s messengers. The clay refuses to be shaped in the direction the potter desires. In response, God sometimes brings events to a determined head and at other times allows events to go their way. This results in a messy view of providence. Deism and pancausality offer more straighforward perspectives in which God uniformly does nothing or uniformly does everything. But God has sovereignly decided to providentially operate in a dynamic give-and-take relationship with his creatures.34

In addition to completely destroying the metaphor of clay and potter, Sanders has now linked the “traditional” view with deism as the two extreme alternatives to his view. Either God himself causes everything that happens or God causes nothing. In between these two alternatives, Sanders drops his relational, openness view of providence. These are not the only options and, beyond that, Sanders has built a straw man to represent the traditional view. Very few theologians have ever argued that God causes everything that happens. Many events are caused by the choices of humans and other personal beings. God does not commit acts of evil, but he does allow other beings to commit such acts. The traditional view simply affirms that these events are part of God’s plan for his world. They are not surprises to which he must respond. They are not unknown to him until they occur, as in Sanders’ view.

Sanders uses a similar technique to drive a wedge between God the Father and Jesus when he discusses Jesus’ healing ministry according to the traditional model. He writes: “Jesus is not going around ‘cleaning up’ the diseases God has spread (as is the case if one affirms divine pancausality). Jesus and the Father stand against that which destroys the health that God, as our Creator, intends for us.”35 If Jesus’ healing miracles were a sign of the presence of the kingdom, as seems likely from Jesus’ response to the disciples of John in Matthew 11:4-5, then the healings do not simply “reveal God’s opposition to sickness.”36 Furthermore, according to Sanders’ view, the fact that Jesus left so many unhealed raises a real problem, not to mention that sickness has continued to this day. Does God no longer oppose sickness, or is he somehow unable or unwilling to remove it completely?

Sanders’ treatment of New Testament texts begins with an examination of selected events in the life of Jesus. Particularly noteworthy is Sanders’ assertion that “The Bethlehem massacre was not the will of God and was not planned beforehand by God. Instead, it reveals that the will of God in its fullness may not be fulfilled in all situations.”37 Rather, it seems better to take this as an illustration of God’s comprehensive will, that not even the wicked actions of a pagan king would thwart God’s plan. The survival of the Christ child was not contingent upon God’s miraculous intervention at the last moment in response to some unforeseen peril, but was planned down to the smallest detail. Although Sanders insists that providence is not primarily based upon God’s knowledge of the future, this seems a clear case in which affirmation that God was aware of this event long before it occurred affects one’s interpretation of its significance.

Sanders further insists that the cross was not planned prior to creation, but was a decision which the Father and the Son came to understand in Gethesmene.38 Judas’ betrayal was also not part of God’s plan, but another of the many choices of humans to which God must respond. What about those texts which seem to contradict his view? According to Sanders, 1 Peter 1:20 (“He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake”) merely affirms the incarnation of the Son as part of the divine project, but not the crucifixion. Ephesians 1:4 (“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight”) teaches corporate election in the Son. Revelation 17:8 (“The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because he once was, now is not, and yet will come”) ought to be interpreted as teaching that names are written in a book from the foundation of the world. This is also to be understood as corporate election, “not specific individuals selected by God for salvation.”39 Even in Revelation 13:8, which Sanders admits “is a bit more problematic,” (“All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world”), the point is that our names are written in the book before the foundation of the world, not that the death of Christ was so ordained.40 Sanders also note that another option is to understand the language of “from the foundation of the world” as praise for God’s wisdom. Thus, this is a reference to “the extremely long time that God’s wisdom has been working toward the salvation of his sinful creatures.”41 Sanders is at least consistent in his reading of these texts, but it is a consistency which seems to empty these texts of their intended meaning.

Furthermore, does not the fact that names are written in a book prior to the foundation of the world indicate something about the knowledge of the one who wrote them there? In addition, does not the fact that those written there do come to faith in Christ in history indicate something about the sovereignty of the one who wrote them there? Sanders does not deal with these issues.

But what about Acts 2:23, which says that Jesus was handed over to the Jewish leadership according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God? Certainly Sanders will admit that this text does not support his view. All this text affirms, Sanders says, is that God delivered his Son “into the hands of those who had a long track record of resisting God’s will. Their rejection did not catch God off guard, however, for he anticipated their response and so walked onto the scene with an excellent prognosis of what would happen.”42 Of course, it is probably not coincidental that Sanders does not mention that God seems to have predicted Jesus’ death in Isaiah 53 and other texts. Sanders would apparently consider these prophecies to be examples of how good God is at predicting the future, even though it remains unknown to him.

Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 10:24-33 is often used to defend a comprehensive view of God’s providence. Jesus tells his followers not to fear those who can kill the body. Rather, they ought to fear God. Then he uses the illustration of birds and hair to show God’s concern for his own. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (vv. 29-30) This seems to indicate not simply that God is aware, or has knowledge of every sparrow that falls, but that a sparrow cannot fall without the exercise of God’s will. Sanders insists that the text is not teaching that. Instead, Jesus here teaches that God wants his people to be encouraged despite the difficulties and persecutions they will face. He calls on them to trust God in the face of suffering. “They may be persecuted and killed for following Jesus, but they should not be anxious about what happens to them. Even if they die for his sake, their heavenly Father cares for them.”43

Of course, we can agree with Sanders that this is the major stress of the passage. This, however, does not seem to deal with the explicit language of the text of Matthew 10:29-30. But, since this language does not fit into Sanders’ theological grid, he simply dismisses it with several apparently rhetorical questions. “Does this mean that God keeps a ledger of sparrows and hair follicles? Or does it mean that no sparrow dies and no hair falls out without God specifically decreeing that it be so?”44 I will not presume to know how God keeps track of sparrows and hair, but the latter question seems to demand a positive answer, on the basis of Matthew 10:29 alone.

What about the man born blind (John 9)? Sanders argues that this miracle was “an opportunity for God’s glory to be manifested in compassion and healing.”45 Sanders accurately notes that Jesus’ disciples incorrectly assumed that this man’s blindness was caused either by his or his parents’ sin, a misunderstanding Jesus corrects. He does not, however, deal with Jesus’ response to them in verse 3, “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” What happened? The man was born blind. Jesus seems to affirm that the man’s blindness was intentionally produced so that God could be glorified in his healing. This seems to indicate that the reason why this man was born blind was so that Jesus could heal him. Was Jesus’ healing of this man a divine accident? Was he one of many blind men in a pool from which Jesus could have chosen any one to perform this miracle? Or was this a specific case of a specific blind man who was blind from birth just so Jesus could come along and heal him? I choose to believe the latter because I think this is the reading strongly implied by Jesus’ words.

When we come to eschatology, certainly Sanders will admit that God’s plan will be accomplished? Not exactly. Sanders insists that “God is yet working to fulfill his promises and bring his project to fruition. The eschaton will surprise us because it is not set in concrete; it is not unfolding according to a prescribed script.”46 Here he distinguishes between predictions, which are fulfilled only once and promises, which are fulfilled repeatedly.47

The promises of God should be understood as part of the divine project rather than as some eternal blueprint, a project in which God has not scripted the way everything in history will go. God has a goal and the routes remain open . . . the master weaver utilizes the possibilities open at any given time in order to weave his purposes into the tapestry. The tapestry is not finished, and God is weaving alongside us to produce it. This is an eschatological model of God’s relationship to the world: God is going to do more, but it is not possible for us to predict the precise way it will go . . .We have reason to hope in the Spirit, for the work of the Spirit is not yet done and the way into the future is not closed and sealed . . . Though the Spirit may not get everything he desires, we have reason to hope because we have a God with a proven track record of successfully navigating the vicissitudes of human history and redeeming it. We have confidence that God will bring his project to the fruition he desires because God has proven himself faithful time and again.48

This is an amazing claim. God’s plan for the future is always in peril, for it depends on the choices humans make. God seldom gets everything he wants; he has to settle for what he can get. God will ultimately bring his project to fruition, but he will probably not get everything he desires. He will make the best of what he can do with what is available to him.

Sanders claims that one of the strengths of his model is that it provides “better approaches to life-application issues such as evil, prayer, guidance and a personal relationship with God” than the traditional view.49 I fail to see the apologetic value in his model. How much more hope there is in a God who knows the past, present, and the future and is working out his plan in the world he created. How much more confidence is provided by a God who is never surprised, who has the power to accomplish everything he desires, and who has ordained both the beginning and the end. How much more assurance is found in a God of unmatched power who has everything under control, including the future. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob both promises things to his people and predicts what will happen. Because of his knowledge and power, none of those promises or predictions can be thwarted by the decisions of his creatures.

We return now to where we began, to the call for homework. The writer of the editorial does not make the point explicitly, but the purpose for the homework assignment seems to be so that there can be meaningful dialog between advocates of the two views. This is a call that I want to affirm and reissue today.

Ironically, the very next issue of Christianity Today includes a letter from a Corresponding Editor expressing “strong dissent” to the editorial. The letter concludes, “Nothing good along this line can be expected for evangelicalism. It is unfortunate if the holders of the heretical view of the ‘openness of God’ could now boast of the ‘openness of Christianity Today.’ ”50 What makes this letter even more ironic is that this issue of Christianity Today has a cover story on Islam. In that article, “Islam USA: Are Christians Prepared for Muslims in the Mainstream?” Wendy Murray Zoba quotes Robert Douglas, former director of the Zwemer Institute of Muslim Studies and now director of the Chicago Center for Urban Mission. Douglas says, “When it comes to reaching Muslims, multitudes of people have stumbled for cultural, social, and linguistic reasons, before they ever had the opportunity to stumble at the cross. . . . There is a desperate need for evangelical Christians to take the time to understand Islam and not to buy into the stereotypes that are floating out there. . . . We will have to work hard at building relationships with Muslims, which means a Christian presence where Muslims are concentrated.”51

If evangelism of Muslims and other non-Christians requires understanding them and their views and building relationships with them, how much more ought evangelicals who attempt to convince other evangelicals of the error of their thinking engage in Christian dialog? Very few of us would sit very long for a conversation that began with a condemnation of us as heretics. Should we be surprised when openness theologians reject such attempts at dialog?

What is needed in the current “God vs. God” debate is that advocates of both sides understand each other’s position and then engage in meaningful dialog over the meaning of the text of Scripture. If we believe that the openness view is heretical, that brings an even greater responsibility to behave Christianly toward those who hold that view, in an attempt to lovingly correct them and restore them to orthodoxy. How could we be more compassionate and caring toward those outside the faith than those who claim to be fellow evangelicals?


1 Richard Rice, “Biblical Support for a New Perspective,” in The Openness of God, by Clark Pinnock, et al. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 15.

2 Clark Pinnock, “Systematic Theology,” in The Openness of God, by Clark Pinnock, et al. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 123.

3 Anonymous, “God vs. God,” Christianity Today (February 7, 2000), 34.

4 In my opinion, one of the problems with the contemporary debate is that it is often presented as if there were only two camps. In reality, there is a great deal of diversity within the two camps. Seldom is an issue simple enough to divide it into two polarized positions. On the other hand, there clearly are two broad perspectives and the proponents of the openness model intentionally distance themselves from what they call Classic or Traditional Theism. See Pinnock, et.al, The Openness of God.

5 “God vs. God,” 35.

6 Ibid. The editorial continues: “Biblical revelation, and not a suspect theological traditionalism, must be the starting point for fresh theological reflection in every generation. If classical theists fail to be biblical, they will surely lose the debate where it counts, in the churches.” Of course, in a church that is largely biblically illiterate, some might say that this battle is already nearly lost.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998).

11 Sanders, The God Who Risks, 10.

12 Ibid., 10-11.

13 Ibid., 12.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid., 42.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid., 43.

19 Ibid., 48.

20 Ibid., 49.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid., 50.

23 Unless indicated otherwise, biblical quotations are from the New International Version.

24 Ibid.

25 The record in Gen 11 seems to make Terah, Abram’s father, the major character. Stephen’s sermon provides a clearer picture of the chronology. God appeared to Abram in Ur and it was Abram who initiated the move. Although the patriarch’s name when called by God is Abram, it is later changed to Abraham by the Lord. For ease of reference, and in recognition of the anachronism, I have chosen to refer to him consistently by the later designation.

26 Ibid., 54-55.

27 Ibid., 55.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid., 81.

30 Ibid.

31 See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Library of Christian Classics, vol. 20, edited by John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1.16.5.

32 Sanders, The God Who Risks, 86.

33 Ibid.

34 Ibid., 87.

35 Ibid., 98.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid., 94.

38 He does affirm that the incarnation was planned from the creation of the world, but not the cross. Ibid., 100. Sanders does not explain his understanding of the purpose for the incarnation.

39 Ibid., 102.

40 Ibid.

41 Ibid.

42 Ibid., 103.

43 Ibid., 113.

44 Ibid.

45 Ibid., 114.

46 Ibid., 125.

47 Ibid., 126.

48 Ibid., 127, 129.

49 Ibid., 19.

50 Roger Nicole, “A Dissenting Voice,” Christianity Today (April 3, 2000), 10.

51 Wendy Murray Zoba, “Islam USA: Are Christians Prepared for Muslims in the Mainstream?, Christianity Today (April 3, 2000), 40.

Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)