“If God is merely impassible He has not made room for Himself in our agonied existence,
if He is merely immutable He has neither place nor time for frail evanescent creatures
in His unchanging existence. But the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ as
sharing our lot is the God who is really free to make Himself poor, that we through His
poverty might be made rich, the God invariant in love but not impassible, constant in
faithfulness but not immutable.” - T.F. Torrance
Can God Make Himself Dependent on Us?
by Roger Olson
August 9, 2014
My recent post about “stealth Calvinism” [see next article below] has stirred up some interesting debate about the appropriateness of saying that God is in any way dependent on humans (or any creature reality). If you did not read that post, it would be helpful to go back and read it, but it’s not absolutely necessary to understand the gist of what I am saying here.
The catalyst question was whether God’s knowledge of humans’ free decisions and actions is independent of them. I argue (and still believe) that to say so is to affirm Calvinism (whether intentionally or unintentionally) because the only way God could know humans’ decisions and actions independently of them is by decreeing them and rendering them certain (divine determinism). This raised even some Arminians’ protests. They don’t like any talk of God being in any way dependent on anything outside of himself.
I have said in response to some objections that I am not afraid of such talk—so long as we understand that God’s dependence on us is voluntary. Here I will add that God’s dependence does not affect his eternal nature or character. That is, God’s voluntary “making himself dependent” on us (a form of divine self-limitation) does not open him up to change in his being. He remains always who he is, always was, and always will be.
However, I see no problem, if we conceive of God as personal in a way analogous to our own personness (because ours is created in his image and likeness), with saying that the eternal, unchanging (in nature and character) God opens himself up to change in relation with us.
I’ve quoted T. F. Torrance on this subject before. Here I’ll do it again simply because he expressed what I am saying so well:
“Does the intersection of His reality with our this-worldly reality in Jesus Christ mean anything for God? We have noted already that it means that space and time are affirmed as real for God in the actuality of his relations with us, which binds us to space and time, so that neither we nor God can contract out of them. Does this mean that God has so opened Himself to our world that our this-worldly experiences have import for Him as taking our hurt and pain into Himself?
… If God is merely impassible He has not made room for Himself in our agonied existence, and if He is merely immutable He has neither place nor time for frail evanescent creatures in His unchanging existence. But the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ as sharing our lot is the God who is really free to make Himself poor, that we through His poverty might be made rich, the God invariant in love but not impassible, constant in faithfulness but not immutable.” (Incarnation in Space and Time, 74-75)
One can find similar affirmations in Karl Barth and Hendrikus Berkhof. While they might not use the word “dependent” I think that word, if qualified rightly, is appropriate to what they say about the God of Jesus Christ and of the biblical story. God makes himself dependent in Jesus Christ—not for his existence or being or character or attributes but for a part of his experience.
A whole line of biblically-serious Christian theologians of the past 150 years have finally shaken off the philosophical ideas of God that became part and parcel of the “Christian classical theism” over the centuries and have dared to condition and qualify God’s immutability and impassibility, simplicity and aseity. My own study of historical theology leads me to believe the first among them were Horace Bushnell (d. 1876) and I. A. Dorner (d. 1884). Both were “mediating theologians” (as I describe that category in The Journey of Modern Theology), not liberal theologians. Among 20th century theologians who affirmed, in one way or another, God’s voluntary dependence on creatures without falling into sheer panentheism (in its original sense of making God eternally and essentially dependent on the world) are Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Jürgen Moltmann, Eberhard Jüngel, Adrio König, Hendrikus Berkhof, Robert Jenson, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Donald Bloesch, and Paul Fiddes. Of course add T. F. Torrance to that list.
Now, just to be clear, I am not saying any of them used the word “dependent,” but I am saying that they all developed doctrines of God from Scripture (as opposed to philosophy) that strongly implied that God voluntarily chooses not to be strictly independent of the world in every way. And I would argue that classical Arminian theology, even if it rarely has gone so far as to say God is dependent on the world for anything, requires that God not be thought of as strictly independent of the world in every possible sense. God’s knowledge of libertarian free decisions and actions of human persons cannot be strictly independent of those persons’ decisions and actions.
If the theologians I have mentioned above hesitate to say that God is in any sense, even voluntarily, dependent on the world I think that is because they were/are wary of people’s natural tendency to misunderstand that to mean panentheism (in the original sense)—something I have made crystal clear here and elsewhere I do not mean. Let me be clear: I believe the God of the Bible could have remained God in every essential way, having all his attributes, fulfilled in himself, without any creation. However, once God decided to created the world (I realize that language is philosophically problematic but it is biblically faithful nonetheless) he voluntarily became dependent on the world for some parts of his life experience.
To put it poetically he “made room for the world in himself.” If there was no creation, God would still be God. But since there is creation and covenant, God experiences the world which alters his experience from what it was and would have been apart from creation. That is what I mean by “dependent” when I say that some of God’s knowledge and experience is dependent on human decisions and actions.
I understand that this language sends shivers down some Christians’ (and others’) spines and raises their hackles, but it doesn’t do that to me. I find this language perfectly consistent with the biblical narrative that identifies God—once its interpretation is stripped of the overlay of philosophical theism that began with the Christian “Apologists” in the second century.
And a P.S.: I don’t see the difference between “logical dependence” and “causal dependence” when we are talking about personal relationships. The former is only independent of causal dependence in matters solely analytical (e.g., mathematics).
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Though I approach this same subject matter from an "open theism" and "process theological" point of view (what Roger calls philosophical theism) still we are in agreement. Too, his warrant to be wary of panentheism would be my own caution as well when using process theology's approach in this matter. Basically, our future is open, and God will experience our future with us. Hence, we are not alone in the dark spaces of this wicked world. Moreover, Jesus' redemption now gives to the church the responsibility with God to renew this world together. Hence, we proceed apace by both Spirit and flesh in mutual solidarity towards recreation, renewal, rebirth, reclamation, revival, and redemption. This means that the deep civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, must be our burden of reconciliation. So too must our solidarity be with our Muslim brothers in the middle-East and Iraq who now suffer the evils of ISIS. We are truly "brothers," in the sense of our common bond / burden of humanity, and truly, if in Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord. So then, be ye salt and light. But be ye something and not nothing.
August 20, 2014
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Beware of Stealth Calvinism!
by Roger Olson
July 31, 2014
July 31, 2014
Several times here I have expressed concern that some Calvinists are attempting to take over churches by stealth. I frequently hear from church members (mostly Baptists but occasionally also Pentecostals and other evangelicals) that their new pastor turned out to be a five point Calvinist without their knowing that when he was called. They only contact me about this when the new pastor attempts to impose Calvinism on the congregation—for example by insisting that all deacons and elders be Calvinists, etc. Numerous reports of this have arisen from especially Southern Baptist congregations that traditionally allowed leaders to be either Calvinist or non-Calvinist.
Now I am beginning to hear reports of denominations that have traditionally included both Calvinists and non-Calvinists subtly attempting to impose Calvinism by means of new statements of faith or amendments to old statements of faith. Usually this happens under the guise of attempting to rule out open theism. Here is the most recent example:
A pastor has reported to me that his district of an evangelical denomination (which I know very well) has amended its statement of faith. Under the guise of attempting to exclude open theists the denomination has asked its member churches to affirm the following:
We believe God’s knowledge is exhaustive; that He fully knows the past, present, and future independent of human decisions and actions. The Father does everything in accordance with His perfect will, though His sovereignty neither eliminates nor minimizes our personal responsibility.
I can’t help but note that “independent” should be “independently.” (What is happening to adverbs in American English? They are disappearing.) However, my main objection is that no Arminian should sign such a statement and any church that adopts it is automatically affirming Calvinism—whether they know it or not. Only a Calvinist (or someone who believes in the Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty) can say that God’s knowledge is independent of human decisions and actions. Even a Molinist cannot say that and mean it.
I suspect many people in that denomination will affirm this statement without any awareness of its Calvinist nature or that it excludes Arminianism. Any church that adopts this statement is adopting Calvinism whether it knows it or not.
The only way God’s knowledge can be independent of human decisions and actions is if God foreordains them and renders them certain.
(Just to head off objections from Lutherans—Yes, some Lutherans believe in that same view of God’s sovereignty, but among evangelicals especially this is especially associated with Calvinism.)
So what do I think is going on in this case? I don’t know, but it certainly appears to me that whoever wrote that statement knew what they were doing. If not, they shouldn’t be writing statements of faith for a denomination and its churches.
(No, I’m not going to name the denomination. I have no desire to get into a wrangle with them over this or anything else. Hopefully, however, they will hear of my objections and change their statement of faith. If they don’t, they are automatically excommunicating all their Arminians—a significant portion of their pastors and members—whether intentionally or not insofar as this statement of faith becomes an instrument of doctrinal accountability. And if it’s not intended as an instrument of doctrinal accountability, why write it and ask churches to affirm it? It will eventually become an instrument of doctrinal accountability even if its initial intention is not such.)
This appears to me to be another case, on a grander scale, of stealth Calvinism.
I have been warning fellow Arminians for a long time that the Calvinist attacks on open theism will come around to haunt us. I knew that because all the evangelical books attacking open theism include arguments that, if valid, would also rule out Arminianism (e.g., that the open theist God cannot guarantee such-and-such in history because he allegedly lacks the knowledge necessary for that).
This statement (above in italics) is probably being promoted as a guard against open theism, but it’s much, much more than that. If adopted by my church I would have to give up my membership—not because I’m an open theist (I’m not) but because whether intentionally or not it excludes classical Arminianism. It makes any church that adopts it automatically, de facto, Calvinist.
Arminians—beware! This tactic is continuing among evangelicals. Privileging Calvinism is already the case in many evangelical organizations that have always included both Calvinists and Arminians. That is one thing that caused me to begin raising my voice about Calvinism and Arminianism twenty-plus years ago. (For example, a faculty member at a major non-denominational seminary told me that no Arminian would ever be hired to teach there—not because the seminary’s statement of faith ruled out Arminianism [it doesn't] but because the theology faculty would block his or her hiring. At that time my own president called himself a “recovering Arminian.” He meant it as humor, but to a real Arminian it sounds like the rhetoric of exclusion.)
Now something more than “privileging Calvinism” is going on. Some Calvinists are attempting to impose Calvinism on Christian organizations that have traditionally been neutral with regard to Calvinism and Arminianism and have included both. They are often doing this under the guise of warding off open theism. Arminians need to band together, in spite of our differences over things like open theism (whether it’s a legitimate evangelical option or not) and push back when this happens.