DD 1.0 Introduction: Taking Up the Challenge

Posted: August 13, 2022 (approx. 1200 words)

For all their criticisms of the “classical” doctrine of God, the very doctrine they find to be so widespread in evangelical circles, open theists nevertheless set about their biblical-theological task with a markedly conservative evangelical understanding of Scriptures. In its best sense, this understanding entails a commitment to a canonical exegesis that reads individual texts in the context of the Bible as a whole and attempts to understand its testimony within an encompassing salvation history.

––Manuel Schmid, God in Motion: A Critical Exploration of the Open Theism Debate

Manuel Schmid notes that when The Openness of God was published in 1994, none of its authors anticipated it would ignite a decade-long firestorm of controversy, particularly in the evangelical world.[1] Even though the intensity of the criticism has died down, the issues remain. Schmid published his book, A Critical Exploration of the Open Theism Debate, in 2021in order to critically address “the attempt to biblically-theologically substantiate and defend the idea of ‘God’s openness.’”[2]  After reading this excellent and even-handed analysis, it was obvious that Schmid’s main critique of open theism is their commitment to a “markedly conservative evangelical understanding of Scriptures…[and] a canonical exegesis;”[3] a criticism with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Prior to being aware of Schmid’s book, I had read numerous books, chapters and articles written by a variety of scholars and pastors who espouse the central tenets of open theism including Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, Thomas Jay Oord, Terence Fretheim, Walter Brueggemann, Gregory Boyd, Sharon L. Baker Put, etc. As a former conservative evangelical pastor, my main issue with many open theists[4] is how dependent they are on defending the inspiration of their canonized scriptures. As a result, many open theists go to great lengths, often creating convoluted and complicated theories, to convince their readers that, in spite of the tension of contradictory portraits of God, the biblical testimony is essentially consistent.[5]

I agree with Schmid that one of the consequences of their conservative approach to scripture is that they choose to ignore all that has been revealed by historical and textual criticism with regard to the origin and transmission of the biblical texts. Their use of scripture in defense of open theism often strikes one as rather contrived.

I am not sure if Schmid intended to issue a challenge to open theists, but that is how I read this statement: “But their enduring loyalty to the presuppositions of evangelical thought leads one to suspect that they agree with the rejection, or at least mistrust, of the historical method in and of itself that is so widespread amongst evangelicals, and that it is because of this attitude that they generally neglect such approaches.”[6] I will, in this monograph, take up the challenge to engage with what historical and textual criticism has revealed about the origin and transmission of the biblical texts that has resulted in texts and canons that are pluriform and polyphonic. Not only am I convinced that the conservative evangelical understanding of scripture does not support, but it actually undermines the basic tenets of open theism. However, accepting the biblical texts for what they obviously are–that is, persistently pluriform and polyphonic, actually adds weight to an inductive argument in support of open theism.

My argument will be structured as follows. After this Introduction (Section 1.0), Section 2.0, “Τὰ ΒιβλίαPersistently Pluriform,” will demonstrate that the texts that eventually were included in the various canons of Jewish and Christian scripture, from the early centuries CE until today, have always existed in multiple and various forms which were often simultaneously in circulation. From their origins through the ongoing processes of transmission (including copying, editorial correction, and content revision), translation, and canonization, the biblical texts have never existed in one static and majority approved form. While such pluriformity was known prior to the discoveries in the Judaean desert (1947-1956), since the release of all manuscript fragments, the pluriformity of prebiblical (and thus later biblical) texts is beyond any doubt.

            Section 3, “Τὰ Βιβλία – Persistently Polyphonic” will present clear and undeniable evidence of the multivocality of the biblical texts. Even should someone take up one modern version of the biblical texts (whether a version of a Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant Bible), a close and careful reading clearly demonstrates that its message on almost any vital topic is obviously diverse and often blatantly contradictory. And when it comes to the most important theological topic of portraying God’s nature, working and will, the biblical texts are so diverse that the esteemed Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, concludes the biblical portrayal of Yahweh is “a conundrum of contradictions.”[7] Yet, so much effort is made by so many biblical studies scholars and biblical theologians to contrive presentations and explanations that insist that the portrayal of the biblical God is uniform and free of any significant contradiction. Even among open theists, the complicated, complex, and contrived efforts through which many strive to unify, ignore, or explain away the obviously diverse divine portrayals is nothing short of mind boggling. Again, I agree with Brueggemann that any attempt to unify these diverse and ambiguous texts is a waste of time and effort and does a disservice to their true, and intended, nature and purpose.[8]

            Section 4, “Τὰ Βιβλία and Open Theism” will examine the hermeneutical lenses through which most open theist read their Bibles; lenses which tend to ignore, minimize, or negate the obvious pluriform and polyphonic nature of our biblical anthologies. Part of Section 4 will critique the tested—but found wanting—canonical, Christological, and cruciform lenses most open theists utilize, followed by a plea to accept biblical pluriformity and polyphony and thus read the biblical texts for what they truly are, and I believe, were always intended to be.

            Section 5, “An Appeal for Hermeneutical Humility,” is based on accepting both the reality of our Bibles’ pluriform and polyphonic natures as well as the reality of our undeniable human finitude. The result of such acceptance should encourage and facilitate engagement in objective research, humble presentations of our diverse observations, and respectful dialogue, discussion, and even debate among believers, religious leaders, and biblical/theological scholars. In this section the question will be raised as to whether we can hold to theological convictions while at the same time being open to learning from those with whom we disagree. To be able to do so requires that we must each struggle with our own desire for certainty as well as resist the intense societal pressure to accept binary thinking and certain solutions such thinking produces. As truly wise and caring people have always noted, in some fashion or another, we must each strive be the change we want to see.    


[1] Manuel Schmid, God in Motion: A Critical Exploration of the Open Theism Debate (Translated by Alex Englander. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2021), 1.

[2] Schmid, God in Motion, vii.

[3] Schmid, God in Motion, 71.

[4] Those open theists who have a process theology background are often less dependent on a conservative evangelical view of Scripture. This is something I will address and demonstrate in Part ???.

[5] The clearest (and perhaps most extreme example) can be found in Gregory Boyd’s massive 2-volume, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God and his shorter book, Inspired Imperfection.

[6] Schmid, God in Motion, 73.

[7] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1997), 362.

[8] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, ???.

2 thoughts on “DD 1.0 Introduction: Taking Up the Challenge

  1. Brian,

    You stated, “ From their origins through the ongoing processes of transmission (including copying, editorial correction, and content revision), translation, and canonization, the biblical texts have never existed in one static and majority approved form. While such pluriformity was known prior to the discoveries in the Judaean desert (1947-1956), since the release of all manuscript fragments, the pluriformity of prebiblical (and thus later biblical) texts is beyond any doubt.”

    I believe this thesis is incredibly strong and necessary to your work and toward a universally more appropriate understanding of the Bible and other historical texts. In The Prophetic Imagination, Brueggemann asserts the role of the prophet as criticizing the dominant consciousness and energizing toward an alternative reality. While the idea of biblical inerrancy is only dominant within a small group of people, it remains in need of critique. And while many ignore the idea of energizing toward an alternative reality (offering only critique), your concept of pluriformity presents that which is needed.

    Like

    1. Thanks Travis for your comment and affirmation of my main thesis. This is something I have been thinking and reading about, and discussing with others, for well over a decade now. After 35 years of pastoring in conservative denominations, I have many close friends and family who trust the Bible as their spiritual foundation but really have no idea how the Bibles they use came to be. Since I’ve allowed myself to be convinced by the evidence of the persistently pluriform and polyphonic nature of the biblical texts, my faith and my desire to dig into the scriptures has been revived. I hope this is not a negative message but a liberating one for those willing to engage with the material presented. I believe more than ever that the Bibles we have are amazing anthologies containing much wisdom for life even, and especially, when read through the pluriform and polyphonic lens. Thank you for engaging with my initial efforts.

      Like

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