Very few theological movements have engaged as much spirited debate and disagreement as has the emergence of “open theism.”
For the past decade and a half, chiefly beginning with the publication of “The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God,” open theism has challenged traditional notions such as God’s omniscience and omnipotence.
Thomas Jay Oord continues this debate with “Creation Made Free.”
The text is a collection of essays predominantly authored by Wesleyan and evangelical scholars, many of whom participated in the earlier trailblazing work mentioned above.
While the earlier text engaged biblical theology and biblical texts to argue in favor of an open theistic approach, “Creation Made Free” pushes the conversation into the realm of science and the relationship that might be shared betwixt the two. Scripture, however, is not neglected. On the contrary, it is infused into the dialogue. The book even begins with a scientifically exegetical take on the Book of Genesis.
“Creation Made Free” argues that open theism is not merely a philosophical construction; it is a scientific and biblical necessity. As Protestants, we can all appreciate scholars who are actually asking us to go back to Scripture to reflect on its words. The text attempts to demonstrate how an open view of God can offer readers a more consistent way to read Scripture and engage science simultaneously.
In other words, it is possible to read the Bible, adapt evolutionary science in a biblically Christian worldview and demonstrate that God is foremost seeking a relationship with creation over against the predetermined uncreative outcomes.
The need for a dialogue with science is consistent with the yearning many have for a faith that is consistent with their own empirical observations.
For many people, traditional beliefs about God are not always consistent with how we see the world and how we experience life. For example, many Christians ascribe to the very common phrase “God is in control.” Some Christians will believe this to a fault. Yet, this phrase does little to testify to the out-of-control, natural events that we all witness on a daily basis. It does little to explain the violence that exists in nature.
The phrase also seems to displace the need for any type of human agency and brings into question the need for a faithful response from a believer. If God is in control, then why does creation need to respond, and why should Christians behave ethically when God will always ensure the properly intended outcome?
“Creation Made Free” offers readers an alternative approach – one that provides an understanding of an all-creative God that does not create in ways antithetical to science but can actually be better understood through various scientific disciplines such as cosmology, evolution, game theory and psychotherapy.
But what might it mean ethically for Christians to take this text seriously? How can scientific open theism change the world?
For starters, when we understand that God is in relationship to creation and does not dictate outcomes, we come to realize that we are largely responsible for the course of creation. Theodicy becomes a different discipline as God is no longer culpable for all things in the world just because God is God.
“Good God, bad world” conundrums are alleviated because God is open to creation, not dictating its process. God will not override our decisions as creatures. God responds to our choices and is aware of the many choices creation could make. Once this epiphany occurs, we are then free to look toward science as a viable revelatory means of God’s activity in creation.
When we realize that God is open to creation, we understand that when we experience tragedies, such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, so too does God newly experience this with us. The Gulf will not be instantly cleaned and the hole will not be divinely plugged. This is the result of our energy policies and the needs we have as a global community addicted to oil.
Our choices matter. God will not save us from ourselves. Yes, we can have faith that God will be “all in all” someday, but that day does not mean God will ensure that our poor environmental choices won’t have a major impact on our planet or even hasten our own demise. If Christians will embrace science and theology together, resolutions to these pressing emergencies and future problems may be nigh.
Likewise, open theism grounds the idea that we are God’s hands and feet, God’s social justice. God does not physically intervene in the world, for this would be both unscientific and metaphysically impossible. God chooses to use people to act in the world. Only people will fight for other people in the Name of God. Only people will stand with the poor in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Only people can seek to rectify injustice.
Traditional theisms place all the onus of responsibility for creation in God’s control while alleviating creation of any obligation to itself and refusing science as a means of revelation. If the world happens to remain undone, or evil and social injustice persist, traditional theists simply chalk this up to part of the divine plan.
When believers begin to merge what we know about the world scientifically with what we know about God theologically through experience, reason, the church and Scripture, Christians can begin to entertain notions contrary to pop theology or strict traditionalism. Christian faith does not have to leave believers confounded in regard to science or their reasoned experience.
If creation is truly free and God is truly open, then humanity can no longer behave selfishly as it awaits the Parousia of Jesus.
Nathan Napier is a minister in the Church of the Nazarene and a graduate of the McAfee School of Theology.
A bi-vocational minister for over 20 years, Napier currently serves as a lay minister at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Tennessee. He holds a Doctor of Ministry from Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology, and his current research focuses on faith, culture and ethnography as pastoral practice.