After spending a week immersed in Jesus' passionate prayer for unity among his church in John 17, a good friend of mine recently made the statement, "I think open theism is a lie straight from the pits of hell. It is blasphemy, and anyone who believes it is a blasphemer." He went on to compare an open theist to a Mormon or a Jehovah's Witness. He even declared that he could not work alongside an open theist for the sake of the gospel.
For those of you who might not be familiar with "Open Theism" it can be defined, in a nutshell, as: the belief that God limits his foreknowledge for the sake of free will. God has "perfect" knowledge right up until the present moment, but does not foreknow everything that will happen. In most forms of open theism God knows his redemptive plan (as in he foreknew he would send Jesus). The issue is clearly based upon a western philosophical system. Probably the most well known open theist is Gregory Boyd. Boyd is a competent philosopher, thoughtful theologian and prayerful pastor. In fact, his open theism came out his understanding of petitionary prayer. The line of thinking goes: If God foreknows everything then why do I need to pray for something? But, if my prayers do actually affect God's work in the world then God has chosen to limit his foreknowledge. This is an oversimplification of the complex philosophical arguments involved in the debate, but it provides enough of a summary to understand the basic idea of open theism.
To return to my friend's statement. Jesus' prayer in John 17 links the witness of the church with its ability to unify. The main thing on Jesus' prayer list for the Church, as he makes his way to the cross, is unity. My friend had the opportunity to teach on this wonderful passage and spent weeks in preparation. He did a wonderful job communicating the meaning of the passage, and I know he is passionate about the unity of the church. Yet, he can go so far as to say that he could not work alongside an open theist to further the kingdom. In his defense, he has rethought this stance after dialog in community (I’m praying that he can work with an open theist). Also, he is known for making blanket statements that he doesn't always fully mean. The reason my friend had such a difficulty with open theism is because he believes that such a perspective limits God's omniscience and omnipotence. Still, the fact that he could make some of the statements he made after studying a passage devoted to unity is baffling to me.
My friend’s view is not without merit. I am not convinced of open theism, nor do I expect him to be. I think Open Theism is an arbitrary issue to the biblical text. How can we expect to put western philosophical categories on Yahweh God? Christians and Jews have always been comfortable assuming God’s sovereignty over all of the universe and at the same time recognizing that prayer can change God’s working in the world. Is it appropriate to label him in such a way that defines how he works in the world?
Yet, my friend’s stanch position against open theism baffles me right up until the point when I condemn others for their doctrine. Could I work alongside a pre-millenial dispensationalist? Could I work alongside a fundamentalist? Could I work alongside a hard-line calvinist? What about a hard-line foundationalist? I would hope that I could answer "yes," to each but I often hold little respect for these theological/philosophical positions and, unfortunately, by extension the people who hold to them. Even though I recognize there are wise, intelligent, and faithful Christians holding to each. As I am confronted more and more with the need to contextualize the gospel, I wonder why it is that doctrine so divides us? Is it really a good idea to try and get at the "essence" of the gospel; to find the supposed "non-negotiables"? These questions seem to come from a Bultmannian framework, and yet it has dominated the evangelical quest for unity. What are we not willing to give up because it is absolutely essential? Is that still a worthwhile question? Is there a better way to get at unity?