The Editor’s View: A Very Small God

It began in 1994 with The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God—a collection of essays by five Evangelical theologians. Now, eleven years later, Open Theism is a full-blown and highly controversial movement in Protestantism. Churches have split over the issue and professors of theology condemned for promoting it.

Why the uproar? Because Open Theism redefines the traditional conception of God, making Him something much less than Christians have historically understood Him to be.

The motivations of the movement—if not its conclusions—are noble. Most believers are at some point faced with apparent contradictions in traditional Christian theology. How, for example, are we to accept the notion that God is both all-good and all-knowing and yet allows horrific evil to enter His creation? Or another: If God is truly sovereign and omniscient, what’s the point of petitionary prayer? Assuming that God has full and perfect knowledge, He already knows what will come to be before we pray.

While theologians throughout the ages have developed their own solutions to these problems, Open Theism’s contribution is unique. Why does an all-knowing, all-powerful, and wholly good Deity allow evil? Perhaps it’s because He isn’t all-knowing after all. Or, to be more fair to their position, it may be that in His loving desire to give us complete freedom, He has intentionally created a future that is yet undecided and unknown even to Him. Certainly, God knows all that already is. The future, on the other hand, is left open—a mass of clay to be eventually molded by the decisions and actions of free creatures. If those beings use their free will for evil, it’s hardly God’s fault.

Similarly, Open Theists argue, prayer is efficacious precisely because God is not so immutable as we thought. Plead hard enough and He just might change His mind.

Proponents of this view are not without their scriptural proof texts. Throughout the biblical narrative, God appears surprised by earthly events, grieved by unforeseen actions, and influenced by the supplications of men. How to understand this except that God actually is surprised and grieved and influenced?

The fatal flaw of Open Theism, of course, is the interpretive literalism that its arguments require. Gone is any concept of reading Scripture through the eyes of the ancients who produced it—writers who typically used anthropomorphic language to describe the transcendent. After all, God reveals Himself to us in categories that we understand. Why does the Deity of Exodus seem more like a tribal warlord than the Triune God of John’s Gospel? Because the people of that era were tribal and warlike and would have understood nothing else.

Early peoples spoke of the Divine in anthropomorphic terms, for that was what their language allowed them. If we fail to understand this fundamental rule of scriptural interpretation, well, we’ll end up with the small God of Open Theism.

One useful function of Protestantism for Catholics is that it often provides a preview of the theological fads and movements that will eventually work their way into the Church. I’ll make a prediction: In the next five to ten years, Catholics will see Open Theism emerge within our own ranks. Theological liberals—happy to leap onto anything that helps undercut the inviolable nature of dogma—will embrace it wholeheartedly. Some charismatics may also move in that direction, attracted by the notion of a pliable God, tilted here and there through the sheer power of prayer.

And so, our theological battles may well move from the nature of the priesthood or moral law to the very nature of God Himself. The stakes could not be higher.


  • Brian Saint-Paul

    Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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