Tag Archives: Impassibility

Bruce McCormack on Open Theism Part 2


With respect to theological considerations, open theism has a quite narrowly defined project:

What these theologians are interested in is basically two things: the will of God as it relates to free rational creatures and the question of what God knows and when he knows it. So open theism has to do, above all, with the doctrines of providence and divine foreknowledge. … The basic intuition is that the future is “open” not only for us but also for God. … Open theists hold…that an exhaustive divine foreknowledge is logically incompatible with human freedom.[1]

Again, McCormack is concerned that the open theists’ method compromises their Christology, and so threatens their entire endeavour:

I regard the lack of an adequate Christology—i.e., one which gives comprehensive attention to the problem of the ontological constitution of the Mediator—to be the single biggest defect in open theism; one which threatens to undermine the entire scheme and render its justified protest against classical theism ineffectual.[2]

It is clear from this statement that McCormack is sympathetic to the open theists’ aim but also rejects their approach to the matter. Addressing the work of Clark Pinnock particularly, McCormack finds that he holds a “fairly classical understanding” of the divine attributes. Although God is said to “suffer,” Pinnock evidently means by this, a kind of suffering distinct from the divine being: “What God is, it would seem, is something that is complete in itself, above and prior to any experience by God of suffering and pain.”[3] The Son who becomes incarnate also puts aside the use of any divine attributes which would conflict with his experience of being human. In this form of kenotic Christology, suggests McCormack, Jesus suffers humanly but his suffering as such has no impact on what the Logos is essentially, and so no effect on the divine nature.[4]

McCormack notes that the open theists’ Arminian account of salvation also drives their doctrine of providence: the way God works in conversion is typical of the way God works with human beings generally.[5] God limits his own power in order to provide space for the relative independence of human creatures, and then deals with them by means of persuasion.

Quite clearly, God’s will is a work-in-progress—and on this point, open theism is in agreement with process theology. “God has the power and ability to be (in Harry Boer’s words) an ‘ad hoc’ God, one who responds and adapts to surprises and to the unexpected. God sets goals for creation and redemption and realizes them ad hoc in history. If Plan A fails, God is ready with Plan B.”[6]

The open theists’ commitment to an open future entails a rejection of exhaustive divine foreknowledge, possibly their most controversial claim. The Achilles heel of this position for McCormack is that they confuse “certainty” with “necessity.” He borrows this distinction from William Lane Craig who argues that certainty is a predicate of persons, and so God’s certain knowledge of what will transpire in time does not render those things “necessary,” for they will occur as a function of the natural and historical conditions under which they take place.[7]

In his final assessment of open theism McCormack calls upon them accept wisdom of the church where it has spoken formally concerning the relevant topics. Here, the open theists’ Arminianism is not of concern for the Council of Orange decided that those who held to conditional or unconditional forms of election may be upheld as orthodox.[8] The same cannot be said with respect to their denial of exhaustive divine foreknowledge: “The truth is that the doctrine of an exhaustive divine foreknowledge enjoys fairly widespread ecumenical support, having been affirmed by both the Reformed and the Roman Catholics.”[9] In a quite remarkable statement that indicates something of McCormack’s understanding of theological authority, he writes,

Pinnock would, no doubt, dismiss the Westminster Confession as a Presbyterian confession without significance for his church and the churches of his allies. But given the radically divided nature of Protestantism in the West today, it seems to me…the better part of wisdom to grant to the teaching office in Rome relatively binding authority on questions in relation to which no existing Protestant confession has taken a different position.[10]

Thus McCormack faults open theism for the rejection of one element of classical theism which he suggests must certainly be upheld.[11] He remains sympathetic to their rejection of “a putative divine impassibility and timelessness” but suggests that such a case must be built on an entirely different metaphysical platform. In the end, open theism remains wedded to the essentialist presuppositions of classical theism and as a result cannot prosecute their case coherently. McCormack will go on to explore how Karl Barth’s actualistic conception of divine being might more fruitfully be applied to issues of interest to the open theists though without sacrificing either divine foreknowledge or immutability.[12]

[1] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 190.

[2] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 201, original emphasis.

[3] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 199, original emphasis.

[4] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 199.

[5] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 203.

[6] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 203, citing Pinnock in The Openness of God, 113.

[7] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 205.

[8] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 207.

[9] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 209.

[10] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 209.

[11] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 210.

[12] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 209-210.

Bruce McCormack on Open Theism Part 1


McCormack begins his essay with a brief overview of the relation of God to the world as understood in classical and process theism. Classical theism understands God as a transcendent being complete and perfect in himself and standing over against the world, thus maintaining a very robust Creator-creature distinction. Process theism, by contrast, envisages continuity between the being of God and the being of the world, so that God is deeply affected by everything that happens in the world. God is not simply responsive to the world, but “the being of God grows, develops, changes, evolves through the history of his interactions with the world.”[1] Yet McCormack suggests that which is common to these two views is more important than their differences:

In spite of these rather significant differences, what classical theism and process theism have in common is far more important. What they have in common, in the first place, is the belief that the “order of knowing” runs in the opposite direction to the “order of being.” That is to say, though the being of God is above and prior to the being of all else that exists (and therefore first in the “order of being”), our knowledge of God proceeds from a prior knowledge of some aspect or aspects of creaturely reality (and therefore the knowledge of God follows knowledge of the self or the world in the “order of knowing”). … Thus epistemology controls and determines divine ontology. … Both [classical and process theism] are exercises in metaphysics because both take up a starting point “from below” in some creaturely reality or magnitude and proceed through a process of inferential reasoning to establish the nature of divine reality. And this means…that both claim to know what God is before a consideration of Christology.[2]

Having laid this foundation McCormack goes on to define open theism as a “highly aggressive, missionary movement in theology which seeks to convert the evangelical churches to what it alleges to be a more “biblical” understanding of God.” Open theism has to do with God’s interaction with the world, and has a primary concern to protect human libertarian freedom, and derivatively, provide an explanation for the existence and persistence of evil. God exists in a reciprocal and open relation to the world and is responsive to human activity. The biblical grounding for this view is twofold. First, the open theists operate with a hermeneutic based on 1 John 4:16: “The statement God is love is as close as the Bible comes to giving us a definition of the divine reality.”[3]

What is happening here is that a definition of a term devised originally for speaking of love on the plane of human relations is being applied in a rather straightforward fashion to the being of God—without any sense that an illegitimate anthropopathizing of God might be taking place. … the Johannine axiom—and the meaning assigned to it—provides the open theists with (1) a criterion of selectivity for identifying passages in the Old Testament which are supportive of their claims and (2) a hermeneutical key for ordering these passages to other, more problematic passages.[4]

Second, McCormack notes that the open theists’ biblical case is largely build on passages in the Old Testament, and that “virtually the whole of the open theistic understanding of God has been fully elaborated on the basis of the Old Testament before the incarnation comes into view.”[5] He observes that both open theists and classical theists tend to harmonise the various texts of the Old Testament with respect to this issue, reading texts problematic to their view in light of other supposedly “more central” texts. McCormack’s own hermeneutical approach is of interest. He wants to allow Old Testament tensions to stand because (a) Scripture is not the work of a single author but a record of revelation received, and so somewhat ambiguous, especially in the Old Testament, which (b) requires interpretation in the light of Jesus Christ in whom alone God’s ultimate intentions are made known.[6] But the open theists’ treatment of the New Testament is largely predicated on a reading of Jesus’ interactions with others and his death on the cross as illustrative of the nature and being of God. McCormack is concerned, once more, that the open theists have applied their “metaphysic of love” so that Jesus is introduced only to validate a conception of God that has been worked out without reference to him.[7]

[1] McCormack, Bruce L., “The Actuality of God: Karl Barth in Conversation with Open Theism,” in Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Responses, ed. McCormack, B. L., (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 187.

[2] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 187-188, original emphasis.

[3] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 192, citing Richard Rice in Pinnock, C., The Openness of God, 16.

[4] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 192, 193.

[5] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 191, original emphasis.

[6] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 195.

[7] McCormack, “Actuality of God,” 197.