Various & Conflicting Portraits of God

The two basic tenets of Open and Relational Theology (ORT) fit with my experience and how I’ve attempted to live out my faith over the last 45 years. However, while my interpretation of some scripture often is supportive of the two basic tenets of ORT, my interpretation of other scripture often is in conflict with these two basic tenets. How can that be? It can be, and in fact it is, because the Jewish and Christian scriptures do not present a unified and harmonious portrait of the nature, workings and will of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob or of the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Manuel Schmid’s most significant and telling critique of Open Theism (OT)—in his 2021 book, God in Motion: A Critical Exploration of the Open Theism Debate—is the manner in which key (i.e., most vocal) proponents of OT approach and interpret Scripture. He writes,

Sanders, at least, in concluding his discussion of the Old and New Testament evidence for the openness of God, admits that many of his explanations of uncertain biblical texts might appear somewhat “strained and unconvincing.” Yet, he stresses how things are just as awkward for “classical” readings of all those texts which speak of God’s repentance, disappointment, or surprise. Ultimately, he remains in agreement with the other representatives of open theism, insisting that their open view of God does considerably greater justice to the “overall biblical portrait” than the assumption of God’s exhaustive definite foreknowledge (69, my emphasis).

I appreciate Sander’s honesty and humility, yet he and most other open theists whose writings I’ve investigated suffer from the same conundrum—they insist and hold fast to “a markedly conservative evangelical understanding of Scripture…[which] entails a commitment to a canonical exegesis…[and] demonstrate[s] their interest [underlying conviction?] in working out a consistent theological interpretation of the Bible in its final form” (71, Schmid’s emphasis). Schmid goes on to write, “…open theists share evangelicalism’s constitutive affirmation of the Bible’s freedom from contradiction and of the fundamental consistency of its individual and collective testimony to God” (72). In their minds, God “has thus handed down a testimony that is certainly multifaceted, but ultimately consistent” (72).

The result of such a conviction of, and commitment to, “the theological harmonization of Old and New Testament testimonies with the openness of God motif is…the striking lack of interest they display towards the conditions of those very texts’ origination and transmission.” They demonstrate a mistrust of the historical method and thus “they have to devote so much energy to exegetical problems that would hardly even arise if they would only devote a little more attention to the transmission and redaction history” of the texts that would later comprise the anthologies regarded by Christians as biblical (73, my emphasis).

The amount of time, effort, energy, and ink that has been spent trying to reconcile scripture’s irreconcilable and contradictory portraits of God’s nature, working and will is testimony to how deeply held their conviction is regarding that the final form of their canonical texts are all “God-breathed” and thus completely harmonious. Gregory Boyd’s massive work, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, and his less voluminous, Inspired Imperfection, are testimony to the lengths to which many open theists will go to create a lens through which they can hold to the inspiration of Scripture while acknowledging that these texts are chock full of contradictory portraits of God’s nature, working and will.

Interestingly, in Millard J. Erickson’s 2003 book, What Does God know and When Does He Know It?, he writes,

One such solution would be on the basis of a form of biblical criticism. If, for example, one were to contend that the Bible is not necessarily a unity, that different books reflect the perspective of varying authors, and that there is not a single divine author (or coauthor) behind the several books, then the apparent conflict need not be resolved. It should be noted that some of the biblical commentators whom the open theists cite may be of such a persuasion regarding Scripture. This would certainly be true of Walter Brueggemann, and possibly of Terence Fretheim. Without trying to draw the limits of evangelicalism too tightly, this would seem to represent a different view of Scripture than has previously ordinarily been identified as evangelical. (71, my emphasis)

After reading thousands of pages written in explanation and support of ORT, my main critique lies in the realm of their efforts to generate unified support of its basics tenets by appealing to Scripture. As Erickson concludes,

We have examined and attempted to evaluate the cases made by the two major parties in the present debate. In general, the open theist position seems to have the greater strength in the area of the practical issues of the Christian life. It also appeals to the current ethos of Western culture with its strong emphasis on human freedom and its aversion to external authority. With respect to other considerations, however, the advantage appears to be clearly with the traditional view. It has done a more thorough exegetical treatment of Scripture and is supported by a much larger body of biblical texts than is the open theist view. … On balance, then, while no single view has given final answers to the issues involved in the foreknowledge debate, the traditional view of God’s exhaustive definite foreknowledge appears to have considerably more cogent intellectual support and fewer difficulties than does the alternative (255).

I agree also with Erickson’s evaluation with the following proviso: I think both sides have the same problem in that they engage in canonical exegesis because they committed to the unity of the Bible’s final form.  I cannot agree that the overall biblical portrait of either classical theology or open and relational theology is consistent. For proponents of either theology to come to the discussion prepared to trump the other with their list of prooftexts—which is the typical approach—actually emphasizes the point that I, and many other biblical scholars and theologians, have made that the bible is theologically multivocal. In other words, there are passages that clearly are supportive of the tenets of open and relational theology, just as there are passages that are clearly supportive of the tenets of classical theology.

The question then arises: What theological conclusions can we arrive at when we approach the Bible as a polyphonic presentation of God’s nature, working and will? My dissertation is titled What’s God Got to Do With It? Theological Implications of the Persistent Pluriformity and Polyphony of Τὰ Βιβλία. That is the very question my dissertation attempts to answer.

1.0 Introduction and Overview

2.0 Evidence I – The Persistent Pluriformity of Τὰ Βιβλία

3.0 Evidence II – The Persistent Polyphony of Τὰ Βιβλία

4.0 Implications I – For Divine Inspiration of Τὰ Βιβλία

5.0 Implications II – For Open and Relational Theology and Τὰ Βιβλία

6.0 Implications III – The Plea for Theological Humility  

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