Timothy George is the Dean of Beeson Divinity School of the mighty Stanford University, member of the Editorial Board of First Things and executive editor of Christianity Today, and a long time member of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). George wrote a small paper for First Things, titled “What God Knows,” that has received wide circulation, especially in the ETS.
In many ways, George’s article is the kind of work that is needed for us to progress. The article has the bearing of sincerity needed, an author of significant authority and well read scholarship, and a few lines of significant history—all tailored to the common Christian soldier with George’s own views on the matter sprinkled in at various points. Even so, George’s understanding is slightly left of center of a true understanding and depiction of Open Theism.
At the beginning, George notes the ETS controversy that was going to consider expulsion of Professors Clark Pinnock and John Sanders. Perhaps not wanting to taint the issue (inside and outside of the ETS), George only notes that a vote was coming to the membership at their annual gathering. Though George notes that the ETS is composed of several thousand theologians, what is not present in the article (perhaps simply for decorum and because it is off the subject) is that only a few hundred full voting members would actually be at the gathering to decide the fate of Pinnock’s and Sanders’ memberships. I do not believe George meant to imply anything, just writing the facts, but certainly the several thousand membership did not read the short documents by Nicole and certainly did not participate in the membership considerations. That is a small thing by itself, but the larger issue follows.
Honorably and right up front, George depicts a conversation that is typical of the confusion over Open Theism. Is Open Theism just a version of Process Theology? Not really, George notes, and deftly dovetails some of the difference between Process Theology and how Open Theism approaches theodicy.
A good piece of rhetoric against Open Theism ensues. If the future is truly open and God did not know about Hitler and the Holocaust, then when the Holocaust unfolded, why did God not do something with “His omnipotent resources to bring it to a halt”? Then George—too freely I believe—aligns Open Theism with Process Theism in a very deft closure: “Open theism grants God too much power to get Him off the theodicy hook, but not enough power to support a plausible doctrine of providence.”
Whether you understand what George just said or not, the rhetoric flows so smoothly that the implications become astounding. The causal reader will be persuaded: Open Theism is too close to Process Theism (guilt by association will do the rest), and the Classical Theist God who has completely ordained everything is just as viable an alternative to the theodicy question. That in turn leads the reader to conclude, with respect to the Holocaust, that neither the Open or Classical view has much ground.
Rhetorically, we are amazed, but we are just not sure how we got amazed. But this appears to be what happens in the first stage of the article. Since God is greater and indeed in control in Classical Theism—having foreknown all and therefore having ordained all—the God with greater power is the greater God. The weaker God of Open Theism is lacking somehow.
Hmmmm! So there! (I think that was the point.)
George is nearly persuasive. But Pinnock is more persuasive in his Most Moved Mover. Contrary to George, theodicy is not the engine of Open Theism. What George did not detail was that the Classical God “ordained” the Holocaust, and this is impossible to get around. The clear strength of the Open Theism God is that the Holocaust was the product of evil and wicked men given a genuine freedom. This strength becomes a mighty powerful strength of Open Theism to the point that Open Theism nearly becomes the answer to the Theodicy question.
We might be able to forgive George for not making this clear about Open Theism, but it gets harder as these oversights multiply.
In fact, a careful survey of the literature both pro and con about theodicy in Open Theism might even reveal how much Open Theism has truly cracked open a huge cavern of weakness in most of Classical Theism. As this cavern widens one can see and possibly make a case that many Classical Theists are scurrying to censure Open Theism before the public truly gets a handle on just how well and how sweepingly Open Theism deals with the Theodicy problem for Classical Theists. That is and said in other way, theodicy has been a burdening question for 1,600+ years in Classical Theism. In contrast and within Open Theism, theodicy becomes a non-issue with God being easily and fully exculpated from any responsibility in evil. How well Open Theism overcomes the theodicy problem is astounding. Rather the “engine of Open Theism,” Open Theism’s answer to the theodicy question is more of badge of honor, like a Medal of Honor to the soldier who prevailed and conquered the last and impregnable stronghold of a battleground.
The implications of Open Theism’s answer to theodicy will (and should) reverberate throughout Christendom. Perhaps best of all, the common Christian soldier can readily understand Open Theism’s answer. We should have these kinds of answers for the common Christian soldier. This reverberation is so significant that it can even be misconstrued as the “engine” of Open Theism. We cannot underestimate the implications.
How George presented himself and Open Theism is his choice. If he knew the above, it becomes beguiling. If he did not, as Open Theism was developing and as George followed from a distance, then it is very reasonable that George picked up upon Open Theism’s rather cogently coherent solution to theodicy; likewise—George is a good writer—then George co-opts Open Theism’s own language and clarifies a good defense of Classical Theism. Continuing to be positively inclined to George, this was just good writing by a defender of Classical Theism.
Yet the record must be cleared. One of the problems many Classical Theists have with Clark Pinnock is that Pinnock is so prolific and so very hard to beat in erudition and clarity of diction. Some of his work espouses some theology that is at odds with many Classical Theists, especially some mighty Baptists, and I am sure that bleeds over into this area of free-will vs. foreknowledge and the larger themes of Open Theism.
Remember how the mighty Roger Nicole’s fire obscured his seeing through some of his own smoke. The larger the beam in one’s own eye—physics does the rest.
But to clear the record here with respect to theodicy and defending the goodness God in the presence of evil, George missed the primary theme of Pinnock’s Most Moved Mover and a very significant challenge within the Most Moved Mover with respect to the responsibility for the Holocaust. Clearly and without question, the greater “problem of responsibility” for the Holocaust is seen in the Classical Theist understanding of God having absolute knowledge of all of the future (and then decreeing) and even foreordaining the Holocaust in many Classical Theist camps. All Calvinist and Reformed Classical Theists have a far greater problem absolving God of responsibility for the Holocaust than do Arminians and most especially Open Theists. All of us know that God is not responsible for the Holocaust. Even as George alludes to how Open Theism clearly exonerates God, yet George’s Classical Theism cannot escape clearly and cleanly in a God of exhaustive foreknowledge and of meticulous sovereignty.
Let’s be clear about this. In spite of George’s allusions to Open Theism’s free-will causing “problems of responsibility” for a God not infringing upon free agents—us—Open Theism does not fully restrict God like George intimates (and nothing like Process Theology). That is important. With God still able and willing to act in time, God could have stopped the Holocaust. But in Classical Theism, God knew about the Holocaust before the creation of the world; God knew of the torture and mutilations before creation, and worse still these horribly ugly tortures and ruthless bloodlettings have always been present to Him, even ordained from the beginning of the world. That is a big bite to swallow for anyone, and bigger still for Christians. In the fuller understanding of the fixed-settled God of Classical Theism, it is impossible to remove all responsibility from God for the Holocaust except by circumlocutions and vast antinomies.
On the contrary, Open Theism’s God is far more comprehensible and—importantly—more cohesive and totally and clearly exonerates God from the Holocaust. This is so very crucial, and we know that George knows this too. Best of all, the common Christian soldier can understand this.
Having set up theodicy in what George believes to the be the “engine of Open Theism,” and dealing with that “engine” in conjunction with the label of “seminiscient deity of open theism,” George proceeds to articulate and again dovetail a different set of theses. George deftly moves from dovetailing the two issues of theodicy and omniscience to the dovetailing of the two issues of the omniscience of God and the dynamism of God.
George stays focused, as his diction flows smoothly, but on deep and retrospective analysis—several reads—we are not sure of the focus anymore. George’s title “What God Knows” only implies the contents, hinting to the reader, begging the reader to see the obvious as George implies. He is a Classical Theist and assumes all the readers naturally know the answer implied by his catchy title, “What God Knows,” which of course is everything. For Classical Theists, God is omniscient, knowing everything past, present and—crucial for this debate—the future.
Open Theists believe God knows everything too, but that is not presented as clearly (excepting some of the future that is not real until it comes about, and give me a moment and I’ll return to this). There is no reason to present the opposition as clearly, especially if you do not have an open mind to the credibility of Open Theism and one is inclined to hold the line that there are no true alternatives to Classical theism. By itself, not even bad press, just free press.
But later, when George adds the comment “seminiscient deity of open theism” on two occasions, that comment is not inside the context of what Open Theists actually say. The “seminiscient” comment is George’s learned deduction, placed into his paper to further clarify. It adds rhetorical flavor with a new word, slapping fellow Classical Theists on the back with a bit of a puff in the chest, but “seminiscient” divides serious thought without due cause in needlessly slighting Open Theism as so obviously deficient. What George actually does is deride without giving a backbone to his derision, and that becomes abuse of his authority.
No one believes in a “seminiscient” God, and it is sad that George would deface Open Theism with this word and without proper support. George’s “seminiscient” deity of Open Theism is a misnomer.
Open Theists readily affirm God’s omniscience, but not in the same manner as Classical Theists. What Open Theists question is how the Bible depicts the “nature” of the future and how the Bible presents the future in relation to God’s recorded activity. There are some biblical references that rather clearly and straightforwardly indicate an openness of the future to God, and these are right along side other biblical references classically seen as God having settled some things about the future. Therefore, the question and discovery of Open Theists is that some things about the future sure enough seem open and unsettled inside of a close biblical reading. That is a far cry from a “seminiscient” view of God, and at this point George’s words mislead his readers.
Since some of the future is “open” and God may not know all the future because the future has not happened yet—well, that may make a case for George’s use of “seminiscient.” But as George uses the term, it is a judgment outside and apart from a clear connection. George’s use of “seminiscient” is separated from his own definition and far a field from what Open Theism actually depicts; George’s use becomes like a split infinitive, where the reader has to look back at the “to” to make a connection. In this case, is there a true connection between George’s use and true Open Theism?
In this case, the “split infinitive” is with respect to just how the Bible views the infinity of God. Just what does the Bible say? What is the true difference between “eternal” and “everlasting”—to pun a little fun—to truly split the ultimate infinitive. What George does not do (and need not for his audience) is clarify what Open Theism truly questions, which is not the omniscience of God, but what the Bible actually says about God’s genuine relationship—the true nature of genuineness. Herein is a titanic problem, for a God who knows every single detail about tomorrow cannot have anything of genuineness that approximates a truly lovingly relationship like the father of a prodigal son.
Within Open Theism, it is not even the degree of omniscience (though that is part of it). For Open Theists, if the “future” is not yet a full reality for God (not like the “present” anyway)—as even George rightly notes—then it is no real lack of knowledge. As such, God can still foreknow what He will do, because He is able to accomplish anything He sets His mind to accomplish. For Classical Theists, the problem is worse, and it is the this “worse” side of Classical Theism that it is absent in George’s article. If God does exhaustively know the future, where is the genuineness of relationship so very obvious in most of the Bible and pregnant by implication in the rest of the Bible?
Classical Theists indicate and challenge Open Theism on foreknowledge, but they continually run and hide from clear articulations about God’s genuineness.
Added to the above, George notes clearly what I think is a significant deduction from a scan of much Open Theist literature: “theodicy is the driving engine of the [Openness] movement.” Though a likely deduction, and theodicy is a great case for Open Theism, George at this point missed the major theme of Pinnock’s Most Moved Mover (personally, I have questions about George’s missing Pinnock’s theme—I just think he is sharper than that). Nevertheless, we should clear the record here as well: the actual engine of Open Theism is
the nature of God’s genuine real time relationship
Indisputably—this is the theme.
George’s article, “What God Knows” is quite a piece work, was meant for a popular audience, and is persuasive and influential. George minces few words. Yet even here there are some subtle misunderstandings that have helped cast a needlessly bad light upon Open Theism’s alternatives to those not actually reading Pinnock (et al). George missed the main theme of Open Theism, and in that failure Open Theism gets some bad press and a faulty understanding to boot. In the end and because the main theme is missed, George actually degrades some of the value of “genuineness” itself in God’s relationship with His children, and this degradation of genuineness becomes a hefty and serious oversight.
I think that George actually intended to shed light on some confusion, and he does a little, but he adds more confusion than he does clarification. In the end, the article will foster more division and further alienate true discussion on what even Nicole admits is an important need, that “we must suitably emphasize the relational and personal characteristics of the God of the Scripture, supremely revealed in Jesus Christ.”
 First Things (June/July 2003): 7-9; located on the internet at http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0306/opinion/george.html.
 Over 3,600 according to the ETS web site: http://www.etsjets.org.
 Theodicy: the theological discipline of attempting to prove the goodness of God in the face of evil.
 And could not in the small space that George was using very conservatively.
 In Appendix 2 on Nicole’s ETS documents.
 See my book on the Heart of the Living God (Bloomington, IN: 1st Books, 2003) that helps clarify this in greater detail. See also, Richard D. Patterson, “Parental Love as a Metaphor for Divine-Human Love” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 46:2 (June 2003): 205-216.
 Roger Nicole, Primary Document against Clark Pinnock on Open Theism, seen at the ETS’s web site: http://www.etsjets.org.