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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Greg Boyd's warfare theology, part 1

One of the major theological controversies in the evangelical world in the past couple of decades has centered on the theological position known as "open theism." The controversy seems to have died down in recent years, largely because open theists have been expelled from positions of influence in evangelical intellectual culture, not because their arguments have been effectively answered. For anyone reading with this not familiar with the controversy, I should define "open theism" before going further.

Open theism is the view that God does not know future free actions with certainty. God knows everything that exists, but the future does not exist yet, so God only knows the future insofar as it follows necessarily from what exists already. Free created agents, such as angels and human beings, make choices that do not necessarily follow from anything in the past. Hence, those choices are not yet real things that can be known. To say that God knows the unknowable is logically contradictory. Hence, open theists claim that they aren't denying God's omniscience. Open theism rests on the premise that time is a reality for God as well as for us, so that the future really is future for God. In other words, open theism denies the traditional view that God is timeless. Calvinists have naturally been the most active in opposing open theism, but they are not the only ones who see it as a denial of basic Christian orthodoxy.

When I applied for an open position in the Bible and Religion department at Huntington University in the fall of 2005, I was only vaguely aware of this controversy. I had read the exchange between John Sanders and Chris Hall in Christianity Today, and had had a couple of conversations with friends about the issue. But it was not really on my radar screen. As a church historian, I took the premodern Christian tradition as my theological starting point. I was aware of the work of theologians who challenged "classical theist" premises such as divine impassibility, and one of those theologians (Robert Jenson) had made an impression on me. But during the application process at Huntington, and after being offered and accepting a position as assistant professor of Bible and religion, I became acquainted with an entire world of evangelical theology that rested on presuppositions I found distinctly alien. The position I had applied for was open largely because of Sanders' dismissal. (I say "largely" because many of Sanders' theology classes were already being taught by another newly hired faculty member, so that both she and I could claim to be Sanders' "replacement.") Therefore, I realized that I needed to understand the controversy both in order to decide whether I would accept the position and in order to handle the very sensitive situation into which I would be stepping if I did accept it.

What struck me from the beginning was that Sanders' theology began from fundamentally evangelical premises. Ironically, this was precisely what I found unconvincing about it. I was arguably more orthodox than Sanders, but certainly not more evangelical. Sanders' starting point was his deep conviction that God is personal and relates to us as one person to another. For me, this was an aspect of classical Christian theology with which I struggled. I found (and still find) concepts of God as a fountain of life, a deep and dazzling darkness, a consuming fire of holiness easier to relate to than more anthropomorphic concepts. This isn't to deny the centrality of the Incarnation, but to underline it. Sanders seemed to think that the Incarnation is simply the fullest manifestation of something that was the case (and was in some sense knowable) all along. In my understanding, the Incarnation radically changes our relationship to God. This is, of course, not an adequate response to Sanders' thoughtful and well-argued work, but an indication of why I didn't, on the whole, find his approach convincing. During my years at HU, I had some interaction with William Hasker, perhaps the most notable philosopher of the open theist movement. (Hasker was retired, but he had an office across the corridor from me and we had a number of conversations.) Hasker challenged me on some of the logical difficulties with classical theism, particularly having to do with divine timelessness. But again, his fundamental assumptions seemed too limiting to me. His God, like Sanders', seemed extremely anthropomorphic, and neither of them seemed to have any place for mystery and paradox in their theology. Therefore, during my years at HU I found myself in the position of a friendly adversary of open theism. I was appalled by the way Sanders had been treated by the institution, and I felt guilty for the fact that I was occupying what had been his office (though my guilt was alleviated by the fact that he had beaten me for another of the jobs I'd applied for. . . . ). But I did not (and still do not) find open theism as taught by Sanders and Hasker a congenial form of theology. I respect their work, but their starting points are not mine.

Greg Boyd's version of open theism starts in a somewhat different place from Sanders and Hasker. While Sanders is primarily concerned with God's relationality, and Hasker with logical coherence, Boyd starts with what he regards as the Biblical picture of God as genuinely at war with evil. (Of course, all three theologians care about all three of these things. In particular, all three of them are deeply concerned with the issue of theodicy--how we can explain the existence of evil in the world given the goodness and power of God.) Boyd's "Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy" has been set forth in two companion volumes. The first, God at War (IVP, 1997), deals with the Biblical evidence. The second, Satan and the Problem of Evil (IVP, 2001), connects the philosophical and theological dots more fully. I've recently read both books and am going to discuss them in a series of blog posts. I find Boyd the most compelling of the three open theists I've mentioned, not because Sanders or Hasker fail to make powerful and interesting arguments, but because Boyd's starting point--that God genuinely fights against evil--is one that I find utterly convincing. I have come to believe for a long time now that many of the problems with Western theology derive from our failure to give the figure of Satan the same place in our thought that he held in the thought of early Christians. For instance, with regard to atonement theology, early Christians believed that Jesus' death rescued us from Satan, while modern "penal substitution theory," having eliminated Satan from the picture, seems to say that Jesus' death rescues us from God. (See my two posts on Aulen's Christus Victor.) Thus, I came to Boyd's work with a strong presumption in favor of his basic thesis about divine warfare, but many reservations about the open theist position to which Boyd links that thesis. In the posts that follow, I'll evaluate Boyd's arguments in more detail.