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Pentecostal Theology, Volume 26, No. 1, Spring 2004
Does God Have a Future? A Pentecostal Response to Christopher Hall’s and
John Sanders’ Recent Book
Reviewed by Matthew K. Thompson
A Model Discussion
The ﬁrst thing to be noted about Does God Have a Future? is its exem- plary model of Christian theological debate.1 The issue at hand, open the- ism, is a major area of controversy in North American evangelicalism at present. Since Clark Pinnock issued a call for them to embrace the open- ness position, Pentecostals are increasingly involving themselves in the discussion.2 Predictably, lines are being drawn within classical Pentecostalism between those who embrace openness (e.g., Kenneth A. Archer) and those who oppose it (e.g., Edgar R. Lee).3 Pentecostals, who have not historically been known for their charitable handling of doctrinal disputes within their own ranks, would do well to conduct their own theo-
Christopher A. Hall and John Sanders, Does God Have a Future? A Debate on Divine Providence (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003).2
Clark H. Pinnock, “Divine Relationality: A Pentecostal Contribution to the Doctrine of God,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 16 (2000): 3-26.3
See Kenneth J. Archer, “Open Theism View: ‘Prayer Changes Things,’” The Pneuma Review 5, no. 2 (Spring 2002): 32-53, and Edgar R. Lee, “The ‘Openness of God’ from a Pentecostal Perspective,” Enrichment Journal (2002) [http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/en- richmentjournal/200204/200204134opennessofgod.cfm]. It should be noted that these two representatives of the poles on this issue at the time of their writings hailed from the same ecclesiastical home, the Assemblies of God. See also my own master’s thesis, “Openness and Perichoresis: An Analysis of Pentecostal Spirituality toward a Pentecostal Doctrine of God” (M.T.S. thesis, Saint Paul School of Theology, 2003).
© 2004 Brill Academic Publishers, Inc., Boston pp. 130–137
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logical debates on this pressing issue in the manner of Hall and Sanders.4
This book is formatted as a collection of email correspondences be- tween two friends who advocate differing views of God and providence. John Sanders, a leading advocate of open theism, argues that God interacts with creatures in time, knows all that can be known (which excludes future free decisions of created free agents, since they do not yet exist to be known), and is capable of suffering for creation. The issue of foreknowl- edge is the controversial point. Many critics of open theism speak of its denial of “exhaustive divine foreknowledge” rather than about the term preferred by open theists themselves, “exhaustive deﬁnite foreknowledge.” The distinction is, of course, important for both logical and theological reasons. Openness proponents insist upon exhaustive divine foreknowl- edge in their tenet that God knows all that can be known. All available knowledge is known by God, thus God possesses exhaustive divine fore- knowledge. What openness denies is exhaustive deﬁnite foreknowledge, in which every future detail is known concretely beforehand, which, the argument goes, would eliminate the very possibility of possibilities. In Sanders’ view, God, by his own sovereign choice, has decided to enter into reciprocal relationships with creatures, which entails an element of risk for God, since for there to be genuine reciprocity there must be genuine free- dom. This opens the possibility, though not the certainty, for creatures to choose not to align themselves with God’s will. When creatures rebel, God must adjust to their free decisions and work in the resulting new circum- stances for good (Rom. 8:28). Thus, God is not absolutely immutable. God is unchanging in essence and character (loving, caring, faithful, and so forth) but not in thoughts and actions.
Chris Hall, representing classical theism, afﬁrms God’s exhaustive deﬁnite foreknowledge, timelessness, immutability, and impassability. For Hall, God does not change in any respect, does not experience time, and does not suffer. Furthermore, God knows all that free agents will ever decide. Hall appeals to J. I. Packer’s concept of antinomy (the afﬁrmation of the truth value of two apparently contradictory truth claims) as a methodological tool for resolving the apparent inconsistency ﬂagged by open theists in afﬁrming libertarian freedom/moral responsibility with
See D. William Faupel, The Everlasting Gospel: The Signiﬁcance of Eschatology in the Development of Pentecostal Thought, Journal of Pentecostal Theology Supplement Series 10 (Shefﬁeld, England: Shefﬁeld Academic Press, 1996), 229-306, for discussions of the “Finished Work” and “New Issue” controversies and their aftermaths as cases in point.
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exhaustive deﬁnite foreknowledge or foreordination.5 The argument from open theists, in a nutshell, is this: since God is perfect, God’s knowledge is perfect. Therefore, whether or not God ordains everything that happens, if God eternally foreknows everything that happens, it must occur. For if “free” agents choose anything other than what is eternally foreknown by God, they thereby invalidate God’s perfect knowledge, which is logically contradictory. Hence, whatever God foreknows as certain must certainly transpire, regardless of the issue of the relationship between prescience and causality.
Both thinkers raise insightful points. This is refreshing particularly since the classical theism camp has heretofore primarily been interested in banishing open theists from fellowship and shutting down the conversation rather than developing new arguments. Hall’s approach, exuding as it does true Christian charity, offers hope for the future of this theological discus- sion between brothers and sisters in Christ.
In what follows, we shall brieﬂy survey Pentecostalism’s relationship with the three major evangelical options on the issue: classical theism, classical Arminianism, and open theism.6 My own inclinations are toward open theism, and thus the purpose of this brief survey is to hold up the open theistic model as a legitimate theological option, indeed, perhaps the most amenable one, for Pentecostals. Therefore, I shall not be primarily interested in marshaling airtight refutations of the other views but rather, in the spirit of Hall and Sanders, inviting Pentecostals to participate in charitable theological debate on these issues.
Classical Theism and Pentecostalism
The relationship between Pentecostalism and what has come to be known as classical theism is actually quite distant. Classical theism is at least partially a misnomer in that the pre-Augustinian Church, although it could not avoid the Greek philosophy that formed the sea of thought in which it swam, had no Augustinian doctrine of predestination or Thomistic
Hall and Sanders, Does God Have a Future? 43-46, 215.6
There is also the option of Molinism, or “Middle Knowledge,” but it can be argued that this view is a variety of classical theism. See Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI/Edinburgh, Scotland: Wm. B. Eerdmans/T & T Clark, 2002), 7-32 and passim. For a defense of middle knowledge as its own option, see William Lane Craig, “The Middle Knowledge View,” in Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views, ed. James K. Beilby and Paul R. Eddy (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 119-43.
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divine impersonalism.7 Sanders points out that Justin Martyr, who whole- heartedly embraced Greek philosophy as the organizing principle of his apologetics, struggled with maintaining the idea of a personal, dynamic God.8 Gregory Thaumaturgus (the Wonder-worker), a third-century bishop Pentecostals would be happy to claim, vigorously defended God’s freedom to choose to suffer, which contradicts the notion of impassability as inher- ent in God.9
Although he did not devise all of the categories, the basic features of “classical theism,” such as divine immutability, impassability, and predes- tination (foreordination), became crystallized in the West with Augustine, in spite of the protests of John Cassian and others condemned as “Semi- Pelagians.”10 The towering ﬁgures of the Reformation, Luther, Zwingli, and especially Calvin, reinforced most of these notions.11 Classical Pentecostals, while at least sentimentally retaining a belief in immutability in hymns, gospel songs, and catch-phrases, have never embraced a dog- matic doctrine of impassability and have explicitly repudiated predestinar- ianism. This is doubtless due to the movement’s primary spiritual grandfather, John Wesley. Wesley’s revival of classical Arminianism pro- vided the Pentecostal Movement with its understanding of the matter of free will and foreknowledge.
Classical Arminianism and Pentecostalism
Sanders helpfully provides a chart in the book that greatly clariﬁes the primary positions Christians take on this matter.12 Wesley’s Arminian view is far and away the dominant view among evangelical Christians today, Pentecostals included. The view of foreknowledge championed here is
See Sanders’ critique of Thomism, Does God Have a Future? 87-93. See also Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, 19-32.8
Hall and Sanders, Does God Have a Future? 65.9
The East remained virtually untouched by the predestinarian controversies of the West down through the centuries. The Orthodox Church regards the double predestination doctrine of high Calvinism as blasphemous heresy due to its impugning of God’s character. For a discussion of predestination and divine and human freedom from an Orthodox per- spective, with an emphasis on the doctrine of synergism, see Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, 193-250.11
The exception would be Luther’s theology of the cross, which has signiﬁcant impli- cations for impassability, whether or not it can be argued that Luther himself thought through them.12
Hall and Sanders, Does God Have a Future? 142-43.
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known as “simple foreknowledge,” whereby God simply knows the future in exhaustive detail without foreordaining all of it or causing any of it to occur by his prescience.13An integral part of the most popular brand of this position is its understanding of God’s relationship to time. Developed by Boethius, the doctrine of divine timelessness sees God as completely out- side of the temporal process and thus as having the privilege of viewing all of time at once. This is sometimes captured in the language of the Eternal Now or Divine Simultaneity. If God sees all things at once, including “free decisions” made by “free” agents, the issue of foreknowledge as deter- ministic is settled, for humans and other free creatures act out of their free- dom and God simply sees this eternally, that is, in God’s timeless existence.
Pentecostals, by and large, adopted this view right along with virtually all non-predestinarian folk in the conviction that it preserves free will and moral responsibility. But there is severe criticism of the coherency of the notion of absolute timelessness in current theological, philosophical, and scientiﬁc discourse.14 Alan G. Padgett, while arguing for a “relative time- lessness” in an effort to maintain God’s freedom from the strictures of human time, afﬁrms the necessity of some temporal sequence in God’s experience for God to interact with the world. He also points out some- thing that Pentecostals, as self-avowed biblical Christians, must take into account: “the Bible knows nothing of a timeless divine eternity in the tra- ditional sense.”15
Another crucial point raised by Sanders elsewhere is that simple fore- knowledge is useless for petitionary prayer since God cannot change what God already sees as certain, whether timelessly or temporally, for that would undermine the authenticity of the certainty of the thing foreseen as certain.16 This means that either God’s knowledge is faulty or that what God foresaw is foreseen as a possibility, which is the position of open the- ism. This is, of course, greatly oversimpliﬁed and I am not here assuming that this argument is logically unassailable. The intent here, as throughout, is to present the issues in such a way as to open up the discussion for
For a defense of simple foreknowledge, see David Hunt, “The Simple Fore- knowledge View,” Divine Foreknowledge, 65-103.14
See William Lane Craig, Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2001).15
Alan G. Padgett, God, Eternity, and the Nature of Time (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1992), 33.16
John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 200-206.
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Pentecostals so that open theism is seen as an option rather than dismissed as heresy.
The restrictions placed upon God by simple foreknowledge in answer- ing petitionary prayer strikes at the heart of the Pentecostal doctrine of a God who can actually do something in response to prayer. The restrictions placed upon God by absolute timelessness strikes, according to Padgett, at the heart of the Pentecostal doctrine of a God who can actually do some- thing, period. Although opponents of open theists endlessly accuse them of limiting God, diminishing God, and creating God in their own image (anthropomorphism), the tables are not difﬁcult to turn when one recog- nizes an uncanny resemblance between the dominating, meticulously sov- ereign God of classical theism and Western ideals of masculinity and power.17As ﬁnite creatures attempting to describe our inﬁnite Creator, any- thing we say about God beyond what is explicitly revealed in Jesus Christ will not do God justice. Therefore, we must simply determine what lan- guage is better or worse in its faithfulness to biblical revelation.
Pentecostalism and Open Theism
The slogan above the content description on the back of the Hall and Sanders book reads “God vs. God,” illustrative of just how different the two views promoted are from each other. I contend that the model offered by Sanders looks far more like the God Pentecostals know and worship. If we use a liturgical method, moving from the primary theology of worship and devotional piety (praxis) to the secondary theology of academic theo- logical reﬂection (doctrinal theory), we arrive at a model of God that bears strong resemblance to the open theistic model.18As Ken Archer points out, “our way of praying should be allowed to shape our way of believing. Our way of praying indicates that we can enter into a dynamic reciprocating relationship with God.”19
We who would be participants in the current blossoming of Pentecostal academic theology would do well, in my opinion, to channel the divisive
Sanders comically depicts the classical God as a “real Marlboro man,” a self- sufﬁcient, self-reliant individualist, the ideal Western male, Does God Have a Future? 126-27. It would appear that no ﬁnite human being is immune to the charge of anthropo- morphism, so perhaps greater humility is called for on both sides of the discussion. Here again, Hall and Sanders provide an exemplary model.18
Indeed, this was the method I used in my master’s thesis (see n. 3 above).19
Archer, “Open Theism View: Prayer Changes Things,” 35.
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sectarian attitudes that characterized our forebears on the praxis level into a theological distinctiveness at the doctrinal level. “Pentecostals are in a good position to make a contribution to the doctrine of God at a point where other traditions have experienced great difﬁculty. They could speak a strong word on behalf of the personal nature of God’s relationality.”20 This “strong word,” I believe, is vital if we are to curb the growing trend toward stagnation that is becoming increasingly evident in many (not all) classical Pentecostal denominations in North America. Our theology must not capitulate to that of our older evangelical cousins in areas where it causes obvious conﬂict with our historical worship. If it does, we “could join all the other listless denominations and cease to be the major source of renewal in the church today.”21 This has already happened at the denom- inational leadership level with the early adoption of the fundamentalist eschatology and hermeneutic of Scoﬁeldian dispensationalism. And here the question posed by the title of the Hall and Sanders book, “Does God have a future?” comes to mind. The answer is yes, and it is a future far greater than that which can be contained in even our largest and most elab- orate charts and blueprints. We have resisted the implications of such thinking for pneumatology at the expense of theological consistency and coherence. We must not make the same mistake in formulating a doctrine of God, lest we end up with a Spirit who is active in the hearts and lives of believers and a Father and Son who remain distant. The ancient Cappadocian doctrine of perichoresis, the mutual interpenetration of the persons of the Trinity in a divine dance of love, helps us here by refusing to let such intra-trinitarian dissolution occur and by eschewing the static God of classical thought.
Wherever one comes down on the issue of these conﬂicting models of God, the important point is how we allow the discussion to proceed within the sphere of Pentecostal scholarship, as opposed to certain evangelical bodies that seem unwilling to allow the discussion to proceed at all. The shameful and divisive tactics employed by these others are a blight on evangelical theology and are the academic equivalent of the petty differ- ences of opinion that result in the divisions that plague our local congre-
Pinnock, “Divine Relationality,” 5.21
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gations. This is not to minimize the importance of the issues at stake, or to say that charges of heresy are never called for, but, regardless of accusa- tions to the contrary, no one is attacking the gospel message of salvation or abandoning the core creedal tenets of orthodox Christianity. Here, Chris Hall is the model opponent of open theism. He does not minimize how deeply he is troubled by what he perceives as some of the implications of openness thought, but neither does he declare Sanders apostate and refuse to converse with him any longer.22 Rather, he and Sanders bathe their debate in prayer and engage in the sacred fun of theological debate, rec- ognizing both the importance and marginality of the particular issues for Christian life and salvation, respectively.
Hall and Sanders leave us with the wise slogan, “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things charity.”23 We may quibble about what constitutes the essentials, but we must do so with charity. For those of us espousing a Wesleyan view of holiness, this last is not optional.
Witness the opposite tactic employed by a Reformed opponent of open theism in anathematizing Clark Pinnock by declaring him no longer a Christian or worthy of his fel- lowship. See Pinnock, Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 16-17.23
Hall and Sanders, Does God Have a Future? 200.