My primer on open theism has made me think that it’d be useful to write ones for other theological systems or topics, as I often receive questions about them as well. A good one to do is Calvinism because it is so prevalent, yet many Christians (including a good number of self-proclaimed Calvinists) do not really understand it. Now, this one is a bit more difficult to condense into one article because it is more of a full blown system than open theism, but I think it will help to stick to what can be considered “classical” Calvinism and largely ignore certain varieties such as “four-point” Calvinism (Amyraldism) and libertarian Calvinism. Still, what follows will be heavily simplified, though I think it will still be largely accurate.
As usual, I’ll attempt to give a charitable portrayal of Calvinism despite being a pretty sharp critic of it (as readers of this blog know). I’ll then give a brief critique, though I won’t say much and will just invite the reader to find other articles I’ve written on the topic.
Recently, I was asked by a college student to explain what open theism is, so I might as well make my answer into a blog post.
Open theism does not alarm me nearly as much other Christians who react like it’s some crazy heresy, but I do think it’s in error and I’ll explain why. As always, I’ll aim to give a charitable portrayal of the view, though my explanation and critique will naturally have to be short if I don’t want this post to get too long.
Open Theism: What it is and Who Believes it
In a nutshell, open theism is the belief that the future is at least partly “open” even for God, such that he does not know with 100% detail what is going to happen. This comes from the alleged incompatibility between these two ideas:
- Human beings have libertarian free will.
- God universally knows exactly what every free creature will do.
Libertarianism is the view that we have free will and that it’s ultimately incompatible with determinism. Since open theists hold strongly to libertarianism, they think #2 should be dropped or amended. The reason is that if an omniscient God, who cannot be wrong, knows ahead of time what people will do, then those facts about the future are “settled” and cannot be changed, thereby jeopardizing freedom. Interestingly enough, most Calvinists, seemingly their mortal enemies, agree with them about this incompatibility but instead opt to drop #1, advocating for a theory of free will called compatibilism (free will and determinism are compatible). In any case, examples of Christians who are open theists are pastor/philosopher Greg Boyd, philosopher William Hasker, and the late theologian Clark Pinnock.
In Gregory Boyd’s Satan and the Problem of Evil, he relays a story about a small Jewish girl named Zosia. Zosia had pretty eyes, and some Nazi soldiers noticed. Simply because they were bored, they decided to remove her eyes on the spot in front of her mother. The author whom Boyd quotes describes the scene, stating that the cries of the girl, the screams of the mother, and the laughter of the Nazi soldiers mingled together and made their way to heaven.
The author asks poignantly: Oh God, whom will you hear first?
A few months ago, I went to a regional meeting for the Evangelical Theological Society at Southwestern Seminary, and while I was only able to attend one day of it, I got to hear some interesting papers. One presentation was by a Reformed philosopher who advanced an argument against the consistency of believing in eternal security–the belief that once someone is truly saved, he cannot lose his salvation–while also believing in libertarian free will (positions that are arguably held by the majority of conservative Southern Baptists). It was an interesting paper and he presented it with passion, though I ultimately did not find it very convincing. I think his mistake is that he presented a false analogy with another argument that he believed people make against Calvinism, which makes his parallel argument against eternal security unsound. Keep in mind that he believes in eternal security; he only presented the latter argument as a way to show that Christians can’t have both libertarian free will and perseverance.
I’ve written several articles critiquing the interpretation and logic of those who advocate limited atonement, the contention that Christ died only for the elect. I’ll now discuss their use of verses that they think give a positive case for limited atonement.
Intellectually honest Calvinists will admit that no text in Scripture explicitly teaches limited atonement: There is no verse that says that Christ died for the elect only or at least explicitly denies that Christ died for everyone. However, many Calvinists will argue that this is no big deal. There is no verse, after all, that explicitly spells out the Trinity or Incarnation, yet those are considered not only clear scriptural teachings but central doctrines of the faith. The reason that the Incarnation is certain, for example, is that there are texts that teach that Christ was a man and others that teach that he was God. It takes only a small step of logic to put them together and conclude that Christ was both fully God and fully man. Likewise, all it takes, according to Calvinists, is a small logical step from certain passages to reach limited atonement.
The texts they typically use are passages that teach that Christ died for a select group of people. Here are a few examples:
John 10:11: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”
Acts 20:28: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”
Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her…”
Other verses can be offered, but these are enough to get the picture. While none of these verses state that Christ died for the elect only, Calvinists argue that it is nonetheless reasonable to make this conclusion.
The Republicans in Congress are seemingly trying to remove federal funds from Planned Parenthood, which is reigniting arguing and anger over the abortion issue. Once again, we’re hearing the nonsense 3% statistic being thrown around to go along with a host of other common arguments to defend abortion and Planned Parenthood. Much of these arguments miss the central point of this debate, being red herrings that distract from the key issue: Do we have good reason to believe that the baby is or is not a human life? Does the mother have the “right” to end that life for any reason of her choosing? Even if we aren’t sure, is the chance that the baby is human great enough to make elective abortion morally wrong? It is frankly frustrating how many people, unfortunately including many confused Christians, use the following arguments when they are all simply irrelevant.
Last week I drove to San Antonio to attend the annual national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. It’s the first time I’ve been to a national meeting; the other time I went to an ETS conference, it was a regional one. I initially wasn’t going to go, but my professors encouraged me to make the trip in order to meet people and listen to contemporary evangelical scholarship. I came back early from it in order to teach class on Thursday and Friday for my professor, so I was only there Tuesday and Wednesday, but it was nonetheless a great experience of learning.
For those who don’t know what it is, ETS is an academic society for evangelical scholars. It has its own journal and has regional and national meetings where scholars present their research in a short session and are then questioned and critiqued by their colleagues in the room. The topics are very wide ranging: There are papers presented about philosophy, systematic theology, hermeneutics, Greek verbs, history, social issues, pastoral issues, Asian-American theology, etc. Pretty much any topic under the sun remotely connected to theology. Even within a particular subject like philosophy, there can be topics as diverse as discussing Berkleyan idealism to leveraging superhero movies to discuss biblical morals (yeah… I’m not kidding). The bad part is that there are literally dozens of sessions one can choose from, so it was sometimes hard to make a choice; still, at least there was always a lot of options.
To prevent this from being too long, I’ll just stick to talking about some of the presentations I went to that were more notable. There are several sessions that I simply have a hard time remembering well or didn’t get too much out of, so I won’t talk much about them. Hopefully, this will still be a decent picture of what I got to listen to. For the most part, I stuck to philosophy presentations, though I made a point to go to a few others that were of other disciplines.
Last week, I went to the annual ETS meeting, which was held in San Antonio this year. I will get around to writing a summary post about it, but for now I’d like to focus on one particular session that was interesting but that ultimately made a failed argument, in my estimation.
Matthew Barrett, a Reformed theologian, gave a presentation titled, “Should We Read the Bible Theologically? Debating Whether Dogma Should Inform Hermeneutics.” He argued that, contrary to many biblical theologians who decry allowing prior theological commitments to guide the interpretation of a text, Christians should read Scripture theologically. Barrett presented well and he is very intelligent, and I appreciated his clear speech. On the face of it, I agreed with his general point. However, for him, “reading theologically” means having a full blown system in mind, and while that may not be always wrong in itself, he gave very little instruction on how to evaluate any system because he conflated issues and gave a murky methodology.
A while ago, I wrote about John Owen’s famous trilemma argument in favor of limited atonement and criticized its shortcomings. I noted that it is reliant on a commercialist view of the atonement, which is faulty, and that it diminishes the importance of faith. Philosophical arguments like that one are not out of bounds by nature and can guide interpretation, but it is not nearly strong enough to overturn better interpretations of passages such as 1 John 2:2 that speak against limited atonement.
Now, I want to discuss another problem for Calvinists who advocate the double payment argument. Many of them insist that though there is a sense in which Christ did not die for everyone, there is another sense in which he did. In other words, while Christ’s blood and sacrifice is sufficient for everyone, it is efficient only for the elect. I think this, along with the double payment argument, leads to a contradiction. Even for those few Calvinists who reject Owen’s argument, this distinction is meaningless and confused.
In my systematic reading seminar last fall, we read through several systems of theology: Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, liberal, etc. A common theme tended to pop up among the conservative Protestant authors, and that is to denigrate philosophy while upholding some supposed pure theology of Scripture. In fact, virtually every conservative Protestant author would take potshots at other systems, seeing them poisoned by philosophy, while claiming that his system was the one that was based purely on Scripture. This sentiment is very common today, even among (or especially among) professional theologians. Philosophy bad! Scripture good!
On a certain level, this conservative Protestant suspicion of philosophy is understandable, given the downright nonsensical roads that liberal theology has taken. However, as pious as this sounds, it shows a lack of self-awareness and a lot of presumption. Though all of those authors claimed to jettison philosophy for the sake of Scripture, every single one of them would then sneak his own philosophy through the back door, seemingly without realization. This remains true today, and it is both aggravating and amusing. Christians need to realize this: Philosophy and reason are unavoidable when interpreting Scripture and developing theology. That does not mean that they displace Scripture as the lead, but it does mean that pretending that one does not engage in philosophy at all is a quick way to adopt underlying philosophical ideas without awareness or critical thought.