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Who’s Moving Whom?: An Evaluation of Clark Pinnock’s Theology of God’s Openness

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Southwest Regional Meeting
Evangelical Theological Society, March 2002, Criswell College, Dallas, TX

Everywhere you look you can write a book
On the trouble of a woman and a man
But you can not impose, you can’t stick your nose
Into something that you don’t understand

But still you wonder
Who’s cheatin’ who, who’s being true
Who don’t even care anymore
It makes you wonder
Who’s doing right with someone tonight
And whose car is parked next door1

In recent years there has been more than a little discussion under the big tent of evangelicalism centered around the topic of the “openness” of God, otherwise designated “relational theism,” “free will theism,” or “open theism.”2 A recent contribution to the conversation has come from Clark Pinnock, identified on the book jacket of his recent book as “one of the most creative evangelical theologians of our day.”3 Probably no one has played a more influential role in the development and defense of open theism than Pinnock.4 Thus, his book, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness, is worthy of our consideration and response.5

Pinnock explains that he chose the title Most Moved Mover because this description “contrasts what the Bible highlights as to the nature of God and what, in this case, Aristotle suggested as a representative Greek philosopher. Aristotle spoke of God as an unmoved mover, which contrasts sharply with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”6 Elsewhere he describes a contrast between “a Hellenic ideal of God as absolute, timeless, and unchangeable being” and “the biblical ideal of God as a dynamic, relational person… These two ideals, the Hellenic and the biblical, cannot really be fused successfully.”7

By now the connection between Alan Jackson’s country song and the topic of this paper should be clear, but, to be sure, let me explain. While reflecting on the title of Pinnock’s book, I immediately thought of the line from the song, “Who’s cheating who?” Of course, since the lyrics come from a country song, the grammatical error is understandable, and perhaps is part of the appeal of this musical genre.8 I eventually recognized Pinnock’s allusion to Aristotle, although I must confess that this was not the first thought that popped into my mind, an admission I perhaps ought not make in such esteemed company.

Pinnock explains that he and “some colleagues” chose the label “openness of God” for their view because it was “an appealing and unused term.”9 He summarizes the model as portraying “God as a triune communion who seeks relationships of love with human beings, having bestowed upon them genuine freedom for this purpose. Love and not freedom was our central concern because it was God’s desire for loving relationships which required freedom. In a controversial move, we also envisaged God making a world, the future of which was not yet completely settled, again to make room for the input of significant creatures.”10

This open view, thus, was conceived in reaction to the “conventional view.” Although elsewhere open theists refer to the strand of orthodox theology against which they are reacting as “classic” or “traditional theism,” Pinnock explains why he prefers the label “conventional.”11 “The term ‘classical theism’ is a recent neologism that conveys more respect than is deserved and implies more agreement among its exponents than there is. It is better to call it conventional, a traditional view among others.”12

This is an important admission by Pinnock and has significant implications for ongoing dialog. Oftentimes this controversy, like so many theological debates, has been framed as if there were only two polar positions, when there has been a diversity of views within orthodoxy.13 Yet it does seem that Pinnock’s agenda may be a bit less than positive, in that his denial of “classic” as a qualifier is based on this designation giving the position more respect than is deserved. Apparently, however, old habits are hard to break, for Pinnock several times slips back into calling his opponent the “traditional view,” the first time only three paragraphs after his defense of “conventional” as the label.14

Pinnock also insists that the Augustinian and Calvinist view of God, “though called classical by some conservatives today, is not a normative model. It is simply a legitimate, neo-Platonic, pattern of interpretation, deserving of the discussion it is being given… . The open view is also a ‘traditional’ view and it belongs to a family of theologies that witness to the dynamic nature of God. Though free will theism is now being criticized for being novel, it should be remembered that in this, as in other matters, it and Augustinianism have co-existed for most of the history of the church.”15

On the other hand, Pinnock later seems to base the appeal of open theism on its novelty.

Conventional theism was shaped in an intellectual climate that favored being over becoming and stability over change. Accepting these assumptions bestowed on it temporary intellectual power but it also distorted Christian theism. The climate has now shifted and new possibilities now exist for theology. The opportunity exists for a fresh intellectual relevance of the doctrine of God. The open view holds promise for apologetics and philosophy of religion. Of course, at the same time, there is always the risk of a new enculturation but that is a risk we always have to take. It would be worse it we just stayed put, defended the pagan heritage, and lost intellectual traction and appeal.16

It seems difficult for Pinnock to have it both ways, to claim both novelty for his position and that it is one of the traditional views of the church. This tension permeates the entire book.

As part of his apologetic for the open view, Pinnock argues that its roots are found in classic Arminianism. He concludes, “The open view grows out of the ideological, if not the ecclesiastical, soil of Wesleyan-Arminianism. It belongs to traditions that affirm human freedom and deny total divine control. At the same time, the open view differs from them in its understanding of certain of the divine attributes. Wesley and Arminius, for example, held to traditional definitions of categories like unchangeability, eternity, and omniscience, which openness theists believe jeopardize the reality of the divine/human relationship.”17

Yet Pinnock also claims that “Historically, the early church’s first theological move concerning the matters under discussion was to go with a free will theistic model out of which various Arminianisms came, of which the open view of God is a recent variant. The fathers before Augustine believed that human beings possessed libertarian freedom and that God does not act irresistibly on the unwilling. One might even call this model ‘classical’, [sic] given its great antiquity and current popularity.”18 Perhaps not surprisingly, no evidence is cited in favor of this thesis.

But Pinnock here again also acknowledges that the open view is a new development in Arminian thought. He claims that it should be seen as an improvement over classic Arminianism. Thus, he describes his open theism as having made “Arminian thinking sharper and clearer and the only and obvious alternative to the conventional options.”19 His further admission is striking: “Our Calvinist critics call it ‘consistent’ Arminianism, a judgment I am not inclined to reject.”20

In this characterization, Pinnock seems to be validating the criticism of Arminianism which the eighteenth century Puritan pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards raised.21 In his treatment of the freedom of the will, Edwards argues that his Arminian opponents are, by virtue of their defense of libertarian freedom, faced with an insurmountable inconsistency. The Arminians of Edwards’s day claimed that God has exhaustive foreknowledge while denying that this knowledge renders future events certain, a rejection of the Calvinist view that human decisions are part of the divine decree. For example, Edwards quotes Daniel Whitby: “God’s prescience has no influence at all on our actions… . Foreknowledge in God is knowledge. As therefore knowledge has no influence on things that are, so neither has foreknowledge on things that shall be.”22

Edwards responds: “Whether prescience be the thing that makes the event necessary or no, it alters not the case. Infallible foreknowledge may prove the necessity of the event foreknown, and yet not be the thing which causes the necessity. If the foreknowledge be absolute, this proves the event known to be necessary, or proves that ‘tis impossible but that the event should be, by some means or other, either by a decree, or some other way, if there be any other way: because, as was said before, ‘tis absurd to say, that a proposition is known to be certainly and infallibly true, which yet may possibly prove not true.”23 Thus, if God foreknows that something will occur, its occurrence is as sure as if God decreed it to occur. “If certain foreknowledge of the future existing of an event, be not the thing which first makes it impossible that it should fail of existence; yet it may, and certainly does demonstrate, that it is impossible it should fail of it, however that impossibility comes. If foreknowledge be not the cause, but the effect of this impossibility, it may prove that there is such an impossibility, as much as if it were the cause. It is as strong arguing from the effect to the cause, as from the cause to the effect.”24

Pinnock’s acceptance of the label “consistent Arminianism” seems to acknowledge that open theism is at least partly an attempt to deal with this inconsistency in classic Arminianism. Although we can perhaps give some credit for an attempt to resolve the dilemma, the Edwardsean perspective seems much to be preferred. As an alternative, the choice of the vast majority of Arminian thinkers, leaving the issue unresolved, dealing with the inconsistency as a “mystery,” is much better than a denial of God’s exhaustive knowledge of the future.

Pinnock develops his “Theology of God’s Openness” in four chapters.25 The book begins with an introductory chapter, in which Pinnock defines open theism, surveys the reactions from the evangelical community, and briefly outlines his theological method. In the next chapter, Pinnock lays the scriptural foundations for his view. In “Overcoming a Pagan Inheritance,” he argues that conventional theism has a pagan rather than a biblical foundation. He then attempts “a timely presentation [of theology] for the sake of a more effective contemporary witness.”26 His final chapter, “The Existential Fit,” explores the “practical implications of the open view of God.”27 A conclusion follows, in which Pinnock pleads for dialog without rancor, for the opportunity for him and others to continue to develop theology within the evangelical community.

The major strength of this book is that it summarizes Pinnock’s current thought. He reviews the development of this theology and responds to some of the criticisms from classic theists. This book makes an important contribution to the conversation. It would have been improved by some more careful editing. Perhaps the book was rushed to publication in order to make it available in Colorado Springs at the 2001 annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.

The most disappointing chapter in Pinnock’s work is the first one, “The Scriptural Foundations.”28 Perhaps my expectations were unwarranted, but I did anticipate that the chapter would include more interaction with the texts of Scripture which Pinnock thinks defend his view.29 This is particularly surprising in light of Pinnock’s claim: “So what gives offense in the open view apparently is not its biblical basis, which is strong, but its novelty.”30

Rather than a defense of the biblical basis of this view, the chapter largely consists of a series of assertions about what the text teaches, or denials of what others think the text teaches. Critical exegetical study is hard to find. For example, Pinnock admits that “certain passages in Scripture appear to teach determinism, but a closer examination of their contexts shows that such interpretations are mistaken.”31 He rejects any deterministic interpretation of Jonah 1:1, Romans 9, Amos, Lamentations 3:38, and Proverbs 16:9 by merely stating that those who read those texts have “over-generalized.”32 Pinnock’s short list of texts which some might think teach determinism concludes with these comments on Exodus 4:11: “When God says, ‘Who makes the mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I the Lord?’ (Exod. 4:11), he is not saying that he causes their disablement but that he can use a poor speaker like Moses. God doesn’t need perfect specimens but uses weak people. We must not base awesome conclusions on flimsy evidence. The Bible does not teach that God exercises all-controlling sovereignty.”33

It seems reasonable to interpret God’s words in Exodus 4:11 in response to Moses’ objection that he cannot speak well, as his claim that he made Moses and, as the Creator, he knows quite well what Moses’ limitations are. Of course, that God uses weak people is a common biblical theme and seems to be in view here as well, but that does not rule out that God is claiming a little more than that in response to Moses. That such an interpretation seems reasonable does not prove that it is correct, but it does mean that such a conclusion is not based on “flimsy evidence.” And even if it is an invalid interpretation, more evidence to show why I should not hold it would strengthen Pinnock’s case.

The more troubling issue, however, is Pinnock’s categorical denial that the Bible teaches all-controlling sovereignty. There are many interpreters who think that there is biblical support for such an understanding of divine sovereignty. In a footnote, Pinnock claims that “the evidence adduced by Packer in Evangelism to support the determinist pole of his alleged antinomy/contradiction is weak.”34 Such an assertion by Pinnock without providing any support might constitute “flimsy evidence.” Ironically, in the same note, Pinnock criticizes D. A. Carson, who “in a long book entitled Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension devotes only seventeen pages to establishing the determinist pole in John’s Gospel and even in them he includes alternative readings; see 181-98. He does not wrestle with the problem he has created for the dynamic nature of the unfolding story of redemption.”35 It seems that seventeen or eighteen pages spent establishing the determinist position from the Gospel of John ought to qualify as an attempt at providing solid evidence for this position. Further, Pinnock claims that the Bible does not teach the very position Carson spent nearly twenty pages defending. This is particularly ironic since Pinnock not only provides no evidence in refutation of Carson’s argument; he does not deal with the biblical data in John’s Gospel here at all.

As further biblical support for his position, Pinnock claims that “the open view of God proposes to take biblical metaphors more seriously and thereby recover the dynamic and relational God of the gospel, but in doing so it runs the risk of being too literal in its interpretation.”36 Presumably, the comparison here is to the “conventional” view. It would have been helpful for Pinnock to develop a bit more what it means to take biblical metaphors more seriously. How to interpret biblical metaphors is a key issue, but it is difficult to see how dialog is advanced when one claims to take the “metaphors more seriously” than those who read the text differently. But, more significant is Pinnock’s admission that open theists run the risk of being too literal in their reading of the biblical metaphors. Later he writes, “Interpreting metaphors seriously may not mean interpreting them literally, but it does require us to weigh all the evidence with care.”37

Pinnock summarizes this issue thusly:

Admittedly it is not always easy to interpret these metaphors but we should respect the fact that they are metaphors of revelation and, as such, deserve high respect. On no account should they be negotiated away under the pressure of alien assumptions. It is so easy, for example, to use terms such as perfection, infinity and transcendence to smuggle human ideas about God into theology and not listen to Scripture… . What is it that prevents us taking seriously the imagery about God changing his mind and/or acting in time? Why can’t we allow such passages to speak? Basic to God’s character is the fact that he ‘relents from punishing’ (Joel 2:13; Jon. 4:2). What disqualifies such texts from being hermeneutically significant like other passages are? Why do we downgrade them as accommodated language and, in effect, silence them.38

He picks up the issue a little later. “Where is the biblical support for key features of conventional theism, for example the dogma of divine unchangeableness, or the assumption of timelessness and impassibility, or the doctrine of all-controlling sovereignty, or the notion of exhaustive foreknowledge?”39 Surely Pinnock knows what texts conventional theists have used to support these views. Surely he has read the literature. Surely he does not mean to imply that all of us have ignored the clear teaching of Scripture in support of his view. Surely he does not mean to say that conventional theism is unbiblical. Surely he is being dismissive and simplistic.

Perhaps the most remarkable confession immediately follows. Pinnock observes, “I think that it would be easier to object to the open view of God on grounds that it is not sufficiently traditional rather than that it is not sufficiently biblical.”40 Although I do believe that the traditional model is much more consistent with the biblical data than the open view I have little evidence on which to make such a claim since Pinnock has provided so little interaction with the biblical text.

Further, I do think Pinnock’s claim that his view might be seen as inconsistent with the history of the church is significant. It is particularly surprising in light of his early claim that the open view has a long history in the Arminian traditions. On the one hand, he claims that the model is new and untested. On the other he claims that it is part of the tradition from the beginning. He cannot have it both ways.

Later, Pinnock concludes, “Conventional theists have difficulty with the open view of God because it challenges certain well-established traditions and not because it is unscriptural.”41 The recent literature criticizing open theism seems to indicate that this theology is suspect on both accounts.

But Pinnock cannot move on without another dismissive comment about conventional theists. “The model takes Scripture very seriously, especially the dynamic, personal metaphors, while our critics seem to consider it beneath them. Embarrassed by biblical anthropomorphisms, they are inclined to demythologize and/or deliteralize them.” 42 In his attempt to explain what it means to take Scripture seriously, Pinnock cautions interpreters “to avoid both literalism and agnosticism.”43 He continues, “One avoids literalism by denying a one-to-one correspondence between metaphors and God’s being and agnosticism by affirming a real correspondence between them. One looks for the implications of the metaphors and appropriates the insights they offer into divine reality. All language is anthropomorphic and metaphorical, it is all we have to work with.”44

What does this serious approach to the text look like? How should one interpret these metaphors? Rather than explaining how to avoid literalism and agnosticism, Pinnock returns to a common refrain: “We take such expressions as God being a father, a king, a rock, etc. not literally but appropriately and seriously.”45 How, one might ask, does one do that? Pinnock does not say. What he does is revisit his theme which has, by now, become more than a little tiresome, that traditional theists do not take the text seriously. “Metaphors have meaning and traditionalists owe an explanation as to what they think the meaning is… . How long do theologians intend to permit the Hellenic-biblical synthesis to influence exegesis? It is not the open view of God that suffers from a lack of biblical support. The problem lies in the conventional view that treats the Bible loosely and forces it onto a Procrustian bed and pre-established system.”46

Having asserted several times that there is no Scriptural support for a conventional view of God’s exhaustive foreknowledge and controlling sovereignty, Pinnock’s conclusion to the discussion of biblical support for the open view is more than a little confusing. “Perhaps in large measure the debate comes down to the fact that we all approach the Bible with a vision of God in our mind. It does seem possible to read the text to be saying that God is an all-controlling absolute Being who knows it all, or that God is a triune God of self-giving and suffering love. Intellectually we can read it either way but how does the Spirit want us to read it? Which interpretation is right for the present circumstance? Which interpretation is timely?”47 Although these are interesting and important questions, it seems that the most important question is a different one. Which interpretation is true? Truth always is right for the present circumstance. Truth always is timely.

He concludes that “Gamaliel got it about right, ‘If this plan and undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is God, you will not be able to overthrow it – you might even be found fighting against God!’ (Acts 5:39).”48 Of course, the conventional theists might remind Pinnock that perhaps this advice cuts both ways. If the traditional view of God is correct, Pinnock’s attempt to “overthrow it” might be to fight against God.

In a brief discussion of different ways of reading the text, Pinnock admits that “one may be influenced by one’s own control beliefs and press texts in directions favored by them.”49 Surely this is an understatement. Of course, interpreters are influenced by their pre-understandings and the systems in which they operate. Pinnock himself admits: “We are all influenced by historical settings that enhance or detract from our interpretations of Scripture. It is truly said that no one comes ‘from nowhere’ but that everyone comes ‘from somewhere.”50 In what is certainly hyperbolic language, Pinnock insists:

Conventional theism was shaped in an intellectual climate that favored being over becoming and stability over change. Accepting these assumptions bestowed on it temporary intellectual power but it also distorted Christian theism. The climate has now shifted and new possibilities now exist for theology. The opportunity exists for a fresh intellectual relevance of the doctrine of God. The open view holds promise for apologetics and philosophy of religion. Of course, at the same time, there is always the risk of a new enculturation but that is a risk we always have to take. It would be worse it we just stayed put, defended the pagan heritage, and lost intellectual traction and appeal.51

Pinnock seems to want to accuse those who differ with him of coming to the text with biases which blind them to seeing what the Scripture teaches. He implies that open theists, on the other hand, appear to have been influenced less, since they are not as bound by the traditional interpretations of the Bible. They are thus able to take the biblical metaphors more seriously. It does not seem too strong to summarize him as arguing that the greatest threat facing the conventional theists is to be blinded to the teaching of Scripture by the traditional understanding. Perhaps the greatest threat facing the open theists is to be overly, or woodenly, literal in the reading of Scripture.

Pinnock’s treatment of the biblical support for his view is shockingly short and inadequate, particularly in light of his assertion that the biblical support is overwhelm-ingly on his side. For a much more biblical defense of open theism see John Sanders’ The God Who Risks or Greg Boyd’s God of the Possible.

In the second chapter, fittingly entitled “Overcoming a Pagan Inheritance,” Pinnock makes much of the thesis that “the conventional doctrine of God has a double origin, in the Bible and in Greek thinking.”52 Although it certainly is true that the “Christian doctrine of God was … shaped in an atmosphere influenced by Greek thought,” Pinnock seems to minimize the effect of Jewish thought on the development of early theology.53 Further, as even he admits, open theology has developed in a “modern/postmodern world.”54

Theology is always articulated, developed, explained, defended, and proclaimed in a historical and cultural context. The theologian must be aware of the degree to which his or her thinking has been influenced by the context in which one is situated. Pinnock seems to maximize the role the historical context played in the development of conventional theology and to minimize its role in his own doctrinal change. Theology is a human endeavor in pursuit of truth and as a human task, it is always contextualized. Pinnock’s evaluation of his opponents is ironic: “What is happening, I think, is that theologians are trusting their intuitions concerning what God must be like, intuitions shaped by the intellectual environment as much as by Scripture. We are allowing culture to have a larger influence than it should.”55 This seems to be no less true of Pinnock and the openness theologians than conventional theists, contrary to what he implies when he clams: “It is not the open view of God that is philosophy-driven as much as conventional theism itself.”56

Pinnock’s treatment of the influence of Greek philosophy on the conventional view is also very brief. Under the heading of “The Pagan Legacy” he devotes two brief sentences to Philo of Alexandria, a mere paragraph to Augustine, and one page to Thomas Aquinas.57 It would seem that, in light of the strong claims that Pinnock makes about the influence of Hellenistic thought on conventional theism, more evidence should be presented in support of the thesis.

Pinnock then attempts to redefine the divine attributes, “subtract[ing] the pagan influences” and modifying them “on the basis of biblical revelation.”58 He begins with the assertion that “the primary category in Christian theism is person not substance.”59 However, he also admits that “the various versions of conventional theism argue that God is personal but leave the impression of absolutism.”60 The problem with this, Pinnock indicates, is that “as immutable and timeless, God is not free to act and interact as a person would… . All this renders so many biblical metaphors almost meaningless.”61 But perhaps more strange is Pinnock’s claim that God’s “corporeality is a subject that ought to be on the modern agenda and which has been neglected hitherto.”62 Divine corporeality has not been neglected as much as rejected.

In asserting that God is love, Pinnock repeats the common openness assertion that “love is the very essence of his being…. . Love is more than an attribute; it is God’s very nature.”63 Of course, God is love (1 John 4:16) but he is much more than that.

The third divine attribute in Pinnock’s list is that God is a “loving community of persons in which each gives and receives love.”64 This inter-personal Trinitarian emphasis is admirable, although I cannot say the same when Pinnock moves on to describe God as “movement, not simple, immutable substance.”65

In place of immutability, Pinnock proposes that “God is characterized as changeable faithfulness.”66 He explains, “One way to express this is to say that God is necessary and changeless in some respects but free and changing in others, or that God is necessary and changeless in nature but that his nature is that of a temporal and personal agent. God changes in some respects but not in others, just as a human being relates in flexible ways with someone, while being annoyed with the same person. In God’s case, we might say that who God is does not change but what God experiences changes. God’s nature does not change but his activities and relationships are dynamic.”67 On the one hand this seems consistent with that of traditional theism. For example, J. I. Packer explains that God’s “immutability is not the changelessness of an eternally frozen pose, but the moral consistency that holds him to his own principles of action and leads him to deal differently with those who change their own behaviour [sic] towards him.”68

Later, Pinnock explains that “God’s changing experiences are due to God’s decision to make the kind of world he did. Because God is aware of what is changing in the world, his awareness undergoes the changes that are caused by the reality of which he is aware.”69 I must confess a lack of understanding of what that means.

Pinnock affirms that “God, as a loving person, is involved in the world and is affected by creatures. This challenges the traditional view of the impassibility of God. Far from being aloof or abstract, God maintains a personal and intimate relation to the world. He is moved by what happens and reacts accordingly.”70 God experiences emotions, he suffers, he feels pain. Of course, some traditional theists have understood this rightly.71 Again, although he seems to imply that this understanding of impassibility is an openness distinctive and is not found in conventional theism, J. I. Packer, to cite one example, explains that divine impassibility “means, not that God is impassive and unfeeling (a frequent misunderstanding), but that no created beings can inflict pain, suffering and distress on him at their own will. In so far as God enters into suffering and grief (which Scripture’s many anthropopathisms, plus the fact of the cross, show that he does), it is by his own deliberate decision; he is never his creatures’ hapless victim.”72

Pinnock defines divine sovereignty as affirming that God the creator has given the world “relative independence and derived autonomy.”73 “God exercises sovereignty by sharing power, not by dominion… . God is so sovereign that he saves the world by choosing weakness… . It is a self-limitation that God himself established for the sake of a measured independence of the world and the possibility of genuine freedom in the world.”74 In language which is classic Pinnock rhetoric, he writes, “How weak God would be if his sovereignty were threatened by any element of risk or uncertainty? Only a pathetic god would reign over the world in dictatorial ways. Imagine having to control everything in order to be able to achieve anything! Who admires such dictatorial power? One can submit to, but not love, such a despot. The God of the gospel doesn’t need a blueprint to feel confident. He works out his purposes resourcefully and does not depend on manipulation.”75

Regarding God’s relationship to time, Pinnock insists that “God is a temporal agent… . God is presented [in Scripture] as experiencing past, present, and future successively not timelessly.”76 “However he may relate to other worlds, God relates to this world temporally. Indeed, if he did not do so, he could not be our savior. To act in time God must somehow be in time.”77 Later, he explains that “we cannot know how it is with God to exist in eternity without a creation. Maybe that involves a relative timelessness. What is certain is that God has made a temporal creation and is able to act temporally in it. God is not timeless because he experiences a succession of events and faces a partially unsettled future.”78

Pinnock seems to be accurate when he claims that “everyone agrees that God is omniscient and knows everything that any being could know. He knows everything that has existed, everything that now exists, and everything that could exist in future.”79 Everyone does not, however, agree with Pinnock when he goes on to say, “But no being, not even God, can know in advance precisely what free agents will do, even though he may predict it with great accuracy. My assumption is, and the Bible seems to share it, that exhaustive foreknowledge would not be possible in a world with real freedom.”80 His claim would perhaps be a bit stronger if Pinnock had given some indication where the Bible supports or shares his assumption. He provides no evidence here.

Later, he affirms that “the reason the Bible often says that ‘God changes his mind’ is because he is working with finite agents, so that when one course of action proves futile he tries another. How boring it would be for God to have to reign over a creation project, each molecule of which has its predestined place! There would be nothing for God to do.”81

Pinnock insists that “God is a wise and resourceful person. Had God ordained everything before creation, he would not really have to be wise because there would be nothing that required wisdom. Wisdom is only required if God is governing a world with free creatures in it who have to be responded to moment by moment as time goes by.”82 He also claims:

I suppose that the main reason people hold so tightly, maybe desperately, to meticulous sovereignty and exhaustive foreknowledge is the anxiety that, without them, God could not be sure, and we could not be sure, that his plans will come to fruition. We wonder how, unless with iron fist and crystal ball, he can succeed in the work of redemption. We worry that God, unless he controls everything, cannot achieve anything. The open view trusts God to accomplish what he said he would accomplish and does not let fears take over. We take God at his word. This is far from a diminished concept of God. Rather, it is an exalted view according to which God is resourceful and wise enough to handle any and all challenges that arise from his having created a significant universe. God knows all the possibilities and is, therefore, never caught off-guard. God knows what he is planning to do and the necessary consequences that will flow from present and past. There is a degree of uncertainty about the future but God understands the range of possibilities contained in it.83

The content of God’s knowledge seems to be a key issue which divides open from traditional theism. In Pinnock’s view, “God knows everything that any being can know. He knows everything that has ever existed, everything that now actually exists, everything that could possibly exist in future, and everything that he has decided to do. The details of his knowledge change as creatures act in new and free ways. This is not a limitation on God as knower; it has to do with the nature of the future as partly settled and partly unsettled. God knows everything that can be known and that is perfection enough.”84

In Pinnock’s view, this is not due to any self-limitation in God. It is not that God could have chosen to have exhaustive knowledge of the future, rather, the world as God created it makes such knowledge impossible for him. “I do not believe that God limits his knowledge. Rather God created a world the future of which is partly unsettled and he knows it truly. God knows everything that can be known.”85

In a final chapter, “The Existential Fit,” Pinnock argues that most people live as if the open view is true. Further, “it has appeal because it demonstrates its value in life. It offers non-Christians a God who grounds the worthwhileness [sic] of their lives and supplies believers with a basis of significance and a framework for living.”86 He summarizes the appeal of open theism when he writes, “One of the strengths of the open view is that people see the way it makes sense of their lives and are drawn to it. It is hard to refute on the existential level.”87

Another apologetic for open theology is a modification of Pascal’s Wager. “The open view of God enjoys an ‘as if’ asset. That is, it is safe to live as if the model were true. Conventional theism, on the other hand, has an ‘as if not’ problem. It has a streak of existential irrationality running through it. Suppose that God has ordained everything you will ever do and it is all completely certain. You would be wise to live as if this were not true from a practical standpoint, otherwise you could have a crisis of motivation.”88

In his conclusion, Pinnock briefly summarizes the debate between “monergists and synergists over God’s relationship with the world.”89 In language which is hard to take seriously, he writes:

On a personal level, I wonder why I have been so savagely attached when I thought what I was doing was: (a) Taking the Bible more seriously. (b) Encouraging us to think more profoundly. (c) Addressing some important questions surrounding our cherished relationship with God. Why the heated and often angry responses? Obviously I have touched a raw nerve: the open view of God is different from the great tradition from Augustine and Calvin in many respects. I suppose it was inevitable that it would arouse strong feelings in opposition and raise the question in a new form as to whether the evangelical coalition is obligated to be Calvinist theologically or whether it is proper to call for reforms in that paradigm.90

Certainly Clark Pinnock is not this naïve. Certainly he cannot be surprised that some would react strongly. Certainly he does not think that he can claim to be taking the Bible “more seriously” than others and not expect some of the others to react.

I do not intend to defend savage personal attacks. It is never legitimate for Christians to behave in an unloving fashion, even if it is in response to unloving behavior. We must take seriously the command to love one another. But I do think it is more than a little disingenuous for Pinnock to try to paint himself as an innocent victim, as a wounded defender of the truth. To push his analogy a bit, he has not simply touched a raw nerve. He inflicted the wound, scratched it open, and then poured acid on it. Here are several illustrations of Pinnock’s rhetoric in this book. This does not sound like a man who is really interested in open dialog.

“A good deal of atheism is a child of traditional theism that cuts God off from human life and undercuts the very meaning and value of life.”91

“Piper’s own view of freedom, so-called compatibilist freedom … was imported into theology by theological determinists like him who wanted some form of ‘freedom’ in sync with determinism. It seems to me that they prefer it because of public relations and the need to support conventional theism, not because the Bible suggests it. What if they just came out and said that they were determinists and didn’t believe in freedom at all, like Luther once said. They would come under ridicule.”92

“Conventional theism tends to be unbiblical and unintelligible, whereas the open view is both scriptural and timely.”93

“Conventional theism struggles with fatalism. Fatalism and predestination are not the same thing – one is impersonal, the other is personal – but they imply much the same thing for practical purposes, i.e. the certainty of all future events.”94

“Conventional theism tends to make God the author of evil because evil arises in a world controlled directly or indirectly by him. Whatever happens is thought to be God’s will so it is difficult to see there can be genuine evil. Evil turns out to be in every case something good in disguise. Evil things happen because they somehow fit into his plan, which makes it hard to hate evil without hating God. Why, God may be teaching us a lesson or something. When you get mugged, you should thank God for it!”95

“Though it is safe to live on the basis of openness thinking, it is not safe to live on the basis of conventional thinking. It may be exhilarating to discuss it intellectually, but you cannot take it seriously practically because it can destroy your sense of personal responsibility. It can make prayer meaningless and evangelism unnecessary and undermine one’s will to live and act.”96

Clark Pinnock ends this work with a call for a continuation of the conversation. He proposes a dialogical method which includes respect for one another, recognition that none of us has all the answers, that avoids caricaturing what others are saying, and keeps politics out of the discussion.97 Yet he later writes: “I can only ask that discussion be permitted among evangelicals, that those who seek to define the movement theologically in their own terms do not silence the debate. I hope we will not let a vociferous minority call the shots and squeeze the whole movement into its mold. Surely evangelicalism is a much grander movement than that.”98

In the context of this call for dialog without rancor Pinnock also issues a plea which has ominous implications. “Looking ahead it would be good if open theists would ponder and explain better how far they wish to go with some of the exciting ideas we have lifted up. People have the right to know how much risk there is, how changeable, passible and lacking in foreknowledge God is. Similarly, our critics who have admitted that the open view has brought good insights forward, need to explain how they plan to integrate them into their own thinking.”99 For those who fear that Pinnock has an agenda to develop his theology well beyond openness, these are foreboding words. It might strike fear into the hearts even of those who would find dialog with Pinnock on these issues profitable.

I found this book an enjoyable yet frustrating read. It promises much more than it delivers. Pinnock teases us with claims for which he provides limited biblical and historical support. He charges his critics with misreading history, without providing evidence of this. He charges the conventional view with misinterpreting Scripture and ignoring the texts which support his view, without providing exegetical support for his interpretations or critical evaluation of why the traditional readings are false. He claims that his view alone makes prayer, evangelism, discipleship, and the spiritual disciplines meaningful, without any interaction with the literature from the traditional view on these issues. He claims that his view is the traditional view, yet that it is novel. He seems to imply that he is consistent and everyone else has glaring inconsistencies. He might be right about all of these charges and claims, but, in the absence of sufficient evidence, I cannot know for sure. (N.B.; I do not think there is such evidence, but I would have expected Pinnock to muster some.) Thus, in the end, I must conclude that I remain unconvinced that God is the Most Moved Mover. Further, I do feel a bit cheated, since I expected much more from Pinnock.


1 Lyrics by Jerry Hayes, sung by Alan Jackson, recorded on “Everything I Love,” 1996.

2 Robert A. Pyne and Stephen R. Spencer, “A Critique of Free-Will Theism, Part One,” Bibliotheca Sacra 158 (July-Sept 2001): 259.

3 Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2001). The quotation comes from the biographical summary on the back cover of this book.

4 See Clark Pinnock, et. al., The Openness of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994). See my review in Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (Oct-Dec 1995): 487-89. Pinnock provides a list of previous writings “along these lines” in Most Moved Mover, 4 fn 9.

5 I do not mean to imply by this that there are only two positions. Perhaps it would be better to see a continuum of views. It would be difficult to articulate clearly the two poles or advocates of either pole. The question of the border of evangelical theology is difficult to answer. Yet, it does seem clear that process theology is outside the boundary on the one pole and that fatalism is outside the boundary on the other pole. Between these two polar positions remains a continuum of views, some within the tent of evangelicalism and others outside. Of course, the borders might be defined differently depending on the definer.

6 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 7. John Frame explains that Aristotle’s god is an impersonal rather than personal being. His description of god as the “Prime Mover,” who is himself unmoved, reflects an understanding of a deity who is more passive even than open theism’s god. But, he concludes, “this god certainly has more in common with open theism than with traditional theism.” John M. Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 2001), 29.

7 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 7.

8 The conflict and misunderstandings which characterize human relationships also seem to occur in the relationship between God and his people. Sometimes it does seem that people stick their noses into things which they do not understand. Tragically, some people respond with apathy, not even caring any more. I could go on drawing connections to the country song lyrics, but will refrain.

9 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 3.

10 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 3.

11 For example, see Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2000). Boyd uses the designation “classic theism.”

12 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 6, fn 14.

13 This seemed to be the case in the first book on this subject by Pinnock and his colleagues, The Openness of God. See my review: The Openness of God. By Clark Pinnock, et al. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994. In Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (Oct-Dec 1995): 487-89.

14 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 7.

15 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 105.

16 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 122.

17 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 106. Note the use of “traditional” here to describe the non-open view.

18 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 105. He then observes that “in any case, the term ‘classical theism’ is of recent coinage and by no means the property of any one group.” This seems to foreshadow a move in apologetics for this view, to claim that it is the classic view.

19 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 12.

20 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 12. Pinnock says nothing about whether the response from Arminians to his claim has been positive. Worthy of further research is the reaction of Arminian theologians to open theology.

21 To be fair, Edwards’s use of “Arminian” must be qualified. He uses this appellation for the non-Calvinists of his day. Not all of his criticisms apply to the various Arminian traditions following him. But, his critique of Arminian understanding of omniscience seems to apply quite broadly.

22 Daniel Whitby, Discourse on the Five Points, 274-75; quoted in Jonathan Edwards, Freedom of the Will, ed. Paul Ramsey, vol. 1 of The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 262.

23 Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 263.

24 Edwards, Freedom of the Will, 263-64.

25 Note that the subtitle to the book is “A Theology of God’s Openness.” As there is diversity within the classic tradition, variety exists among openness theologians. There are areas of commonality but significant differences. Several common themes are that love is the essence of God, humans have libertarian freedom, and that thus the future is partly open. The denial of exhaustive future knowledge seems to be based upon the understanding of love and freedom.

26 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 113.

27 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 153.

28 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 25-64.

29 My criticism is not that Pinnock does not use the Bible. It is not even that Pinnock might have some biblical support for his view. I was not looking for a collection of proof texts. My criticism is that he doesn’t engage in the hermeneutical process by explaining to the reader how he interprets the key texts which he thinks support his view. Further, he does not interact with the biblical revelation which his opponents think disprove his view. John Sanders, The God Who Risks (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998), is a much more effective treatment of the biblical data. Ironically, Pinnock notes this when he uses Sanders’ work as evidence of how much open theists attempt to be biblical. “Dramatic proof of this can be found in John Sanders’ book The God Who Risks, where a hundred pages are dedicated to close exegesis, a fact often overlooked by his critics.” (Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 25.)

30 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 104.

31 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 54.

32 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 54-55. The reference to Amos is particularly interesting. Pinnock writes that “When God asks through Amos, ‘Does disaster befall a city unless the Lord has done it?’ the reference is to divine judgment on sins, not to disasters in general.” Not only does Pinnock not provide the location in the book of Amos from which this quotation comes, he provides no exegetical, historical, or other evidence in support of his interpretation. He merely asserts that he is right.

33 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 55.

34 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 55, fn 74. The complete title of J. I. Packer’s work is Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1967).

35 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 55, fn 74. According to my count, 181-98 is eighteen pages.

36 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 60-61.

37 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 61.

38 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 61-62.

39 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 62.

40 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 62.

41 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 64.

42 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 62.

43 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 62.

44 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 62-63.

45 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 63.

46 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 63.

47 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 64.

48 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 64.

49 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 60.

50 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 115.

51 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 122.

52 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 68.

53 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 68.

54 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 66.

55 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 66.

56 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 115.

57 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 68-70.

58 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 79.

59 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 79.

60 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 80.

61 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 80.

62 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 81.

63 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 81.

64 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 83.

65 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 84.

66 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 85.

67 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 85.

68 J. I. Packer, “God,” in New Dictionary of Theology, 276,

69 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 88.

70 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 88.

71 Pinnock cites Millard Erickson, God the Father Almighty (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998), 161-64, as one example from a traditional theist.

72 Packer, “God,” New Dictionary of Theology, 277.

73 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 92.

74 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 93.

75 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 95.

76 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 96.

77 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 97.

78 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 99.

79 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 99-100.

80 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 100.

81 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 100.

82 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 102.

83 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 103.

84 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 138.

85 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 138, fn 58.

86 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 177.

87 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 154.

88 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 155.

89 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 180. The use of these categories seems a bit strange. He introduces them only here in the book. Throughout the chapters he uses the more “conventional” language of the debate.

90 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 180.

91 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 118.

92 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 115, fn 6.

93 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 121.

94 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 162.

95 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 176-77.

96 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 155.

97 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 181. Interestingly, the call to “try to keep politics out of the discussion (is the opponent in or out of the evangelical movement)” seems to be a political comment. This book was released just prior to the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Colorado Springs, CO. The theme of that meeting was “Defining the Boundaries.”

98 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 185.

99 Pinnock, Most Moved Mover, 185.

Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)