Donald Wayne Viney Reviews Richard Rice’s Book, The Future of Open Theism

The following is scheduled to appear in Process Studies v. 50, n. 2 (2021).

Richard Rice, The Future of Open Theism: From Antecedents to Opportunities (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2020).

Reviewed by Donald Wayne Viney

Pittsburg State University

Open Theism is based on a surprisingly simple idea: God is open to creaturely influence. For open theists, God is the creator who exerts power and influence over the world, but the creatures, by their decisions, have effects on God. In 1980, Richard Rice published The Openness of God (Nashville, Tennessee: Review and Herald Publishing Association). Rice showed how “the open view of God”—I think Rice was the first to use this expression—is relevant to such perennial questions as divine foreknowledge, providence, prophecy, and predestination. However, the book that, more than any other, brought open theism to a wider reading public and sparked controversies in Evangelical Christian circles was The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (InterVarsity Press, 1994). That book, co-authored by five Evangelicals, included chapters on open theism as it relates to the Bible (by Richard Rice), the history of Christian thought (by John Sanders), systematic theology (by Clark Pinnock), philosophy (by William Hasker), and practical matters of Christian life (by David Basinger). Other prominent Evangelical proponents of open theism are Gregory Boyd, author of God of the Possible: A Biblical Introduction to the Open View of God (Baker, 2000) and Thomas Jay Oord, author of The Uncontrolling Love of God (IVP Academic, 2015).

In the book under review, Rice ably summarizes the discussions and debates about open theism in the last 40 years since his first book on the subject appeared. This includes the ugly spectacle of doctrine eclipsing love—unprofessional personal attacks, charges of heresy, as well as some open theists losing their academic positions as a result of their theology. (A good German source on these troubles is Julia Enxing’s Gott im Werden: Die Prozesstheologie Charles Hartshornes, Verlag Friedrich Pustet, 2013, chapter 5.) Rice also includes a chapter on much lesser-known figures who anticipated some of the major themes of open theism. A more complete history of open theism remains to be written, but those who Rice names—Jacobus Arminius, Adam Clarke, Lorenzo McCabe, Jules Lequyer, Gordon C. Olson, Howard Roy Elseth—all play their part in that history. An apparent typo (p. 18) makes Lequyer a compatibilist about human freedom, but he was clearly an incompatibilist. In Lequyer’s words, “if it is a question of a free action, we know that it is really possible not to do it” (Œuvres complètes, edited by Jean Grenier, Éditions de la Baconnière, 1952, p. 192). Many others could be mentioned. To name a few: Levi ben Gershon, Faustus Socinus, Friedrich Wilhelm Schelling, Gustav Fechner, Roland Gibson Hazard, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Abraham Heschel.

Arguably, the most influential antecedents to open theism are the English born philosopher-mathematician Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) and the American philosopher-ornithologist, Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000). Whitehead, in his later writings, lit the spark that Hartshorne fanned into a flame, defending the idea of a God in dynamic interaction with the world. Both Rice and Boyd wrote dissertations on Hartshorne and, to a lesser extent, he was important to Hasker and Oord. Rice studied process thought at Chicago with Langdon Gilkey and Schubert Ogden (himself a student of Hartshorne); his 1976 dissertation is titled Charles Hartshorne’s Concept of Natural Theology. Although it was never published, Hartshorne wrote a preface for it (kindly shared with me by Rice). Hartshorne found Rice to have understood him well, with “no imputations to me of ideas or assertions not mine.” He considered “the entire work rewarding and interesting” and averred that Rice had made the case that Hartshorne’s work is “well worth taking into account by theologians,” and that no one had justified neglecting it. Hartshorne added that he could not claim to be an unbiased judge in these matters. With hindsight, however, I think it is possible to say that neglect of Hartshorne’s work is not only not justifiable, but intellectually irresponsible.

Hartshorne did not identify as Christian, nor as a theologian, much less as an Evangelical, but just about everything that is distinctive and controversial about open theism is to be found in his philosophy—including highlighting the contributions of minor figures of the past—and he argued the case in major journals and books in rather fine detail for over sixty years. In February 1981, Hartshorne came to the University of Oklahoma where I was then a graduate student. The student newspaper interviewed me about his impending arrival. I mentioned Hartshorne’s book The Divine Relativity (Yale University Press, 1948), but the journalist printed “The Divine Reality.” When I showed Hartshorne the article, he noted the error and said that many had written about the divine reality, but he asked how many I knew who had written about the divine relativity. I don’t recall my answer, but the correct response would have been, “Not very many, and most who had defended it were considered minor figures.” The dominant Western traditions denied that God can change or be affected by the creatures—in other words, they denied any relativity in God. Thanks largely to Hartshorne, in many quarters, a changeless and non-relative God is no longer the default position of philosophy and theology.

Rice does not emphasize the pivotal role that Hartshorne played in the paths of some Evangelical thinkers to an open view of God. This is understandable since Evangelical open theists are keen to distinguish their views from Whitehead, Hartshorne, and other process philosophers and theologians. In another work, Rice details his own encounter with Hartshorne’s thought and explains the ways in which he diverges from it (see Rice’s beautifully crafted and informative essay, “Process Theism and the Open View of God: The Crucial Difference” in Searching for an Adequate God: A Dialogue Between Process and Free Will Theists, edited by John B. Cobb Jr. and Clark H. Pinnock, Eerdmans, 2000). Notwithstanding the differences between Evangelical open theism and process theism, their common element, and that which distinguishes them from more traditional forms of theism, is precisely what Hartshorne called “divine openness to creaturely influence” (from a 1963 article, republished in Hartshorne’s Wisdom as Moderation, SUNY Press, 1987, see p. 92.) Time and again, Rice emphasizes that the most distinctive feature of open theism is the interaction between God and the creatures (see pp. 31, 50, 101, 108, 133, 138, 142).

A question that any theory about divine relativity must answer is whether it reduces God to the status of a creature. Put somewhat differently, doesn’t interaction with finite and contingent beings make God finite and contingent? Hartshorne replies that God is indeed, in some sense, finite and contingent, but not in a way that impugns the Godhead. Hartshorne makes a three-fold distinction of logical type, applicable to both God and the creatures, among (i) an individual’s existence, (ii) its enduring characteristics, and (iii) the actual ways in which its characteristics are concretized in experience. Imagine a woman listening to a bird singing, and identifying it as a Wood Thrush. One may infer from her actual state of identifying the bird that she has certain cognitive abilities or characteristics, and that she exists. But the inference cannot go the other way: One may not infer from her existence and her characteristics that she is listening to a bird. In moving from existence to character to actuality, one goes from the more abstract to the most concrete. One’s actual experiences are information rich compared to one’s enduring characteristics. Hartshorne argued that the same distinctions apply to God, although, in the divine case, character is usually called God’s essence. The difference between God and the creatures, is that existence and character in God are modally distinct from the divine actuality—actuality is always contingent (i.e. could have been otherwise), whereas existence and essence are necessary (i.e. could not have been otherwise). In the creaturely case, existence, character, and actuality are all contingent. (See the concluding chapter of Hartshorne’s Reality as Social Process, Beacon Press, 1953.)

David Tracy referred to this tripartite distinction as “Hartshorne’s discovery” since it allows one to attribute to God, without contradiction, both necessary and contingent features (Tracy, “Analogy, Metaphor and God Language: Charles Hartshorne,” The Modern Schoolman 62/4, May 1985, p. 259). This is important for addressing the problem of divine omniscience and human freedom, and more generally of God’s knowledge of the future. On Hartshorne’s view, God is omniscient insofar as God knows everything that is, exactly as it is. Future events (and human decisions that have yet to be made) do not exist as fully definite actualities—the future is a realm of “will be’s and may be’s,” and therefore, God must know it as such. (See, for example, Hartshorne’s Man’s Vision of God, Willet, Clark, & Co., 1941, pp. 98f.) Critics often claim that this sort of God is not omniscient, but their criticism shows that they have failed to cross the pons asinorum of the debate: the question is not whether God is all-knowing but precisely what fully definite actualities exist to be known. Of course, this entails that God is not through and through eternal but also experiences time as sequential, a consequence Hartshorne embraces.

Evangelical open theists make the same basic distinction as Hartshorne and they use the same argument concerning divine knowledge and the future. Rice explains: “[In] existence and character God is absolutely immutable, through all eternity never other than he is. But in his experience, that is, in his concrete actuality, God is infinitely sensitive to the ongoing course of creaturely events and therefore constantly changing” (p. 32). John Sanders uses the apt phrase, “dynamic omniscience,” to distinguish open views of divine knowledge from their classical counterparts. In Rice’s words: “On any account of omniscience, God knows all there is to know, but since many aspects of the future become definite only as events take place, God knows the yet-to-be settled aspects as unsettled” (pp. 37-38). As for the semantics of future tense statements, Rice reports that some Evangelical open theists agree with Hartshorne in interpreting “will and will not” statements as contraries; others see them as contradictories but claim that God is not in a position to know what is true until it occurs (p. 87). (For one of Hartshorne’s discussions of this issue, see his Creative Experiencing, SUNY Press, 2011, chapter 8.) These ideas are neatly encapsulated in Rice’s expression that God is supremely temporal, but not, like the creatures, temporary (p. 150).

The concept of the openness of God goes hand-in-hand with the concept of the openness, or at least partial openness, of the future. The openness of the future can be defended in a number of ways, but it is a direct consequence of positing libertarian freedom in human beings, an idea espoused by both Hartshorne and his Evangelical counterparts. Against Einstein, Hartshorne argued, “to have free creatures is, in effect, to throw dice. So why not a dice-throwing God?” (A Natural Theology for Our Time, Open Court, 1967, p. 92). Open theists also speak of a God who takes chances because of human freedom, as in the title of Sanders’ book, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence (2nd ed., IVP Academic, 2007). Of course, these ideas play into the responses of process and open theists of how God’s interactions with the creatures are related to sin, evil, tragedy, and suffering, topics about which both camps have much to say.     

The classical theistic tradition adopted Aristotle’s expression “the unmoved mover” as one way of describing God—the divine being as immutable and impassible but moving all else by the divine will. Nothing could be more removed from open and process theism. During the 1981 visit to Norman, Oklahoma mentioned above, Hartshorne was asked about the unmoved mover idea and he replied that it is a half-truth parading as the whole truth—a God affected by the creatures is hardly unmoved. In the late 1980s, Hartshorne began referring to God as “the most and best moved mover,” building on the phrase associated with Rabbi Heschel, that God is the most moved mover (Hartshorne, The Zero Fallacy, Open Court, 1997, pp. 6 and 39). These are the words used by Pinnock in his book Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Baker Academic, 2001), apparently without awareness of Heschel’s or Hartshorne’s priority.

Perhaps the most important overlap of Hartshorne’s theism and Evangelical open theism is the centrality of divine love. Hartshorne often said that his “intuitive clue[s] in philosophy were a God of love and the love of God (e.g. The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne, edited by Lewis Hahn, Open Court, 1991, p. 700). Hartshorne wrote: “The key is love, not power. We should not worship God because besides divine love there is also divine power. It is the love that explains the power, not vice versa” (Creative Experiencing, p. 7). Evangelical open theists say similar things. Rice speaks of “the heart of open theism [as] the conviction that love is central to God’s identity” (p. 92). Rice asks which attribute, power or love, is “central to our vision of God” (p. 231). For open theism, it is love (p. 214). This is borne out by something I witnessed at a conference in Wilmore, Kentucky in 2003. The conference closed with a panel discussion among five speakers, which included two open theists, William Hasker and John Sanders. Thomas Oord put a question to the panelists: “Charles Hartshorne said that his ultimate intuitive clue in philosophy was that ‘God is love.’ What is your ultimate intuitive clue in philosophy?” Hasker and Sanders, agreed with Hartshorne. The others, with less sympathy for openness theology, appealed to intuitions about the infallibility of the Bible, the providential power of God, and the authority of Church tradition.

The foregoing is not a criticism of Rice’s book. On the contrary, even as he voices disagreements with process thought, he is admirably fair, accurate, and generous (see especially pp. 43-45 and 112-116). It may, however, be useful to mark one more point of contact. Hartshorne believed that the Bible could not easily be interpreted as supporting classical theism. For example, the usual proof-texts for divine immutability are best interpreted as expressions of confidence in God’s faithfulness in keeping promises (see Rice’s comments on Sanders’ ideas, pp. 75-76). Or again, the usual proof-texts for exhaustive divine foreknowledge of a completely determinate future are inconclusive in view of other equally interesting texts that portray God in dynamic interaction with the creatures, as issuing conditional prophecies, and even as repenting. Hartshorne also considered his form of theism to be a better lens through which to view ideas about God in the Bible. These views are evident in his most extended discussion of biblical ideas in Philosophers Speak of God co-authored with his student William L. Reese (Chicago, 1953, pp. 36-38). The same interpretations appear again in his book Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (SUNY Press, 1984, pp. 1-3, 39, 42, 43, and 77). For this reason, one cannot be surprised that Christian theologians who could be identified as process thinkers, like Eugene Peters, John B. Cobb, Jr., and Schubert Ogden, all of whom cut their teeth on process thought under Hartshorne’s tutelage, also agree with Evangelical open theists concerning biblical support for the openness of God.  

Profound similarities notwithstanding, there are equally significant disagreements. Evangelicals are committed to a high view of Scriptural authority. Hartshorne was raised by Christian parents, and he knew the Bible, but he definitely rejected doctrines of biblical infallibility and inerrancy. One can also cite specific doctrinal differences: Evangelicals accept, but Hartshorne rejected or was skeptical of, creation ex nihilo, miracles that involve suspension of nature’s laws, and a continued accumulation of experiences for persons after death; in addition, Hartshorne did not support the specifically Christian beliefs in the Incarnation and the Trinity, although he occasionally suggested ways of interpreting such ideas from the perspective of process theism. Of course, these points of disagreement are not what make open theism controversial in Evangelical circles, nor are they the sort of ideas that would threaten to undo one’s career at a conservative religiously affiliated college. Nevertheless, for some more traditionally minded Evangelicals, they are not enough to save the open theists in their ranks from guilt by association with process theism (see Pinnock’s remark reported by Rice, p. 45). 

One of the great strengths of this book is that it goes well beyond a catalogue of comparisons between various forms of theism. More importantly, Rice does not simply adopt a defensive posture. He considers the openness of God as “a paradigm shift, a perspective that potentially puts a new light on the entire scope of Christian faith” (p. 122). The second half of the book is devoted to Rice’s own views about this shift in perspective as it applies to the Trinity, human freedom, Christology, the Church, and Eschatology. While these issues were not at the forefront of Hartshorne’s thinking, Rice is fully aware that Christian process theists such as Marjorie Suchocki (pp. 174-174) have much to say on these topics.

An especially welcome feature of Rice’s work is his irenic feistiness in turning the tables on those who characterize the God of open (also process) theism as limited in comparison to God as classically conceived (pp. 127-135). He notes the negative connotations of “limit language” as applied to God and he lists other reasons against using such language, including the mistake I mentioned above that a dynamic view of omniscience supposes that the future is unknown to God. Rice also notes that God’s decision (on the open view) to create genuinely free creatures allows for values not obviously available in a universe determined in all its details by God. Divine power, says Rice, is subtle, in the way it empowers others rather than exerting power over them, analogous to the difference between encouraging a conversation and giving a lecture. Finally, there is the richness of divine experience on the open view. In Rice’s words, “Open theism seeks to recapture the biblical portrait of a God who is intimately acquainted with, acutely sensitive to, profoundly affected by, and dynamically interactive with the creatures who bear the divine image” (p. 133).

Rice advises against speaking of an open-relational God as “self-limiting,” as even some open theists do (cf. p. 41 and p. 92), and as Hartshorne once did (An Outline and Defense of the Argument for the Unity of Being in the Absolute or Divine Good, Harvard University, Ph.D. dissertation, May 1923, p. 29). One must always ask, “limited in comparison to what?” Presiding over a world of partially self-creative creatures does not prevent God from achieving a goal that could have been achieved without creating them. On the contrary, it augments divine power by allowing God to achieve something that would not have been possible without them, namely genuinely loving interactions between God and the creatures. Manipulating a world of marionettes might be entertaining, but it is surely greater to interact with partially free creatures. There is the additional argument that the all-controlling God of traditional theism is a concept that is dubious at best and at worst incoherent: states of affairs involving the free decisions of more than one individual (such as loving relations) require more than one individual to become actual, even if one of the individuals is God. Theologies that suppose otherwise, as Lequyer elegantly put it, are “games of human genius” that make of the work of God something frivolous and base (Œuvres complètes, p. 212).

Rice’s book has value beyond its superb summary, defense, and elaboration of Evangelical open theism, and beyond the Christian community to which it is mostly addressed. Quite apart from the book’s intermural debates, non-Christians will find here a spirit of magnanimity. Open theism teaches a Christianity less intent on condemnation and division and more interested in reflecting the love of Christ. In this way, the great commandments which Hartshorne himself identified as central to religion at its best—to love God with all of one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself—might find expression in even the most contested theological disagreements.