Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Reflecting on a Flexible Providence

For the Seminary's School for Leadership Training (SLT) this year, pastor and professor, Dr. Gregory A. Boyd came and delivered a series of lectures on the topic of Christianity in America – largely based on his book, The Myth of a Christian Nation – and a workshop on Open Theism (Open View). In this post, I will focus on the latter, first with some of my personal background in respect to Dr. Boyd and Open Theism, then focusing on the lecture material itself.  Read on after the break for more!

Personal Context
Prior or Dr. Boyd's coming to SLT, I did some armchair research on the internet about him. This was spurred on by a $1.99 deal I found last fall on his popular book, Myth of a Christian Nation, as well as a free copy of one of his academic books, God At War, on spiritual warfare that was handed out to seminary students. His name was also brought up last fall in classroom discussions related to Open Theism. So his name and the topics he has written and spoken about were on my mind as I was digging.

I was surprised to find that Dr. Boyd has had numerous exchanges with Dr. John Piper, a pastor and former associate professor of biblical studies. Both men taught at Bethel University in St. Paul, MN (Boyd still teaches one class a year), and both were peers in the Baptist General Conference. My exposure to Dr. Piper started about five years ago when my close friend, whom I also consider a spiritual friend, began attending Dr. Piper's congregation, Bethlehem Baptist, in Minneapolis. Experiencing an abundance of spiritual vitality and growth there, my friend began to share some tidbits from Dr. Piper, lending me his copy of the book, Desiring God, as well as pointing me toward the incredibly deep website of the same name, DesiringGod.org,where Dr. Piper maintains a vigorous web presence.

Dr. Piper's theological orientation is strongly Calvinist in nature. I was raised in the Church of the Brethren, which has likely no trace of that theological tradition (likely because my religious ancestors were hunted down and murdered by many Calvinist reformers, among others). So as a thorough Arminian (I didn't even know that term before coming to seminary), I was surprised at how much I enjoyed following Piper's writing, particularly on his blog. As I have become more theologically aware of my own beliefs, I have begun to drift away from Piper's prolific writings, but I remain thankful for the chance to have worked with them for a season.

The exchanges that I referenced earlier, though, between Boyd and Piper, did not look quite so pleasant, and the exchanges revolve mostly around Boyd's profession the Open Theism view in his role at Bethel University, which flies in the face of Calvinist views of God's foreknowledge of what we perceive to be the future. Piper and a circle of pastors in the Baptist General Conference went so far as staging an attempt to have Boyd cast out of the Baptist fellowship and fired from Bethel University, both of which were unsuccessful. So this bit of history sparked my interest in Boyd even further before his arrival at EMU for SLT. 

“A Flexible Providence”
The Classical View
In his workshop on the Open View, Dr. Boyd first briefly sketched out what he referred to as the “classical view” that that underlies various theological views such as Calvinism's doctrine of predestination. Characterizing such views as based on ancient Greek philosophy – particularly Aristotelian and Platonic – Boyd went on to describe these views as having an assumption that all of creation must be ordered perfectly from start to finish, and that sign of flexibility or change is seen as weakness and therefore bad. Boyd argues that such theological views, based on Greek philosophical assumptions, are neither Biblical nor praiseworthy.

The Open View
In the Open View that Boyd espouses, God knows all things (is omniscient), including future possibilities. Some future possibilities and the steps to get there are definite and non-negotiable, God does have a definite path toward these and the ultimate consummation of history and Creation. But there are other future possibilities that God is also aware of, but not that they are certain. There is room for flexibility and the change of plans from God's perspective.

This view is, of course, one that supports the notion of free will/agency. But Boyd insists that this “freedom” is limited, restricted, and conditioned by our nature as human beings, created by God, and in a fallen state (Sin). The open view places moral responsibility on the part of the faithful. Boyd also insists that this view does not diminish the supremacy or glory of God, as some of his detractors argue. Rather, God is infinitely intelligent and anticipates all possibilities simultaneously, because as Boyd stated in his presentation, “You can't fraction up infinity.” God is all things at all times and in all places.

Dr. Boyd made use of a number of analogies to illustrate this view. The first was a “choose your own adventure” book, a genre popular in my middle school years. In these books, the reader is reading along in the story and is eventually presented with a number of options on how to proceed. This series of choices leads the reader down a certain pre-determined path to a number of pre-determined conclusions. In this analogy, which isn't the strongest, God can be thought of as the author of this “choose your own adventure book” called Creation. It was unclear to me who he was suggesting the readers of this book were: humans or God, or both.

While I appreciated the narrative qualities of his first analogy, the next analogy that Boyd used to illustrate the Open View really captured my imagination and intellect: that of a chess game. To be successful in the game of chess is to have and leverage the ability to think ahead in the game. The farther out you can project the game in your mind, combined with good strategy, the more successful you will be. For humans, though, this can be cognitively taxing, as each possible future move becomes exponentially more complex. Humans playing chess can think anywhere from 3 to 30 moves into the future of the game. God, says Boyd, kind of does that with Creation. Except God can see all future possibilities and has the perfect strategy at hand for come what may. This analogy also works better with the problem of evil, as there is an opponent in chess, there is an opponent (albeit an inferior one) of God's in Creation.

Biblical Witness
Dr. Boyd described a pivotal moment in coming to grips with this view, in his reading of 2 Kings 20:1-11, the story of King Hezekiah's illness, which I happened to write an exegesis paper on last fall. In this story, the prophet, Isaiah, is told by God to tell Hezekiah that he will surely die. King Hezekiah reacts to this news by weeping bitterly and praying to God in private. Hearing the king's prayer, God orders Isaiah to return to the king's chamber and inform him that God is adding another 15 years to his life. Boyd came to see (and I tend to agree) that if God is doing anything other than what is being stated here (speaking, listening, responding), it would seem to be manipulative.

Other references to Scripture that seem to describe a God that is open and flexible in working with Creation comes early on in Genesis 6:6-7, where God expresses regret at having even created humans in the first place, and resolves to wipe them from the face of the earth, leading to the Noah/Ark narrative. In the Exodus, 3:17, God reflects aloud about the decision to lead the Hebrew people by way of a longer route from Pharao, saying, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” This contingent, subjunctive language seems to suggest potential outcomes. Most powerfully, Matthew 26:39, Jesus praying in the garden at Gethsemane says, “My father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (NIV) For trinitarian Christians, this has be present some fascinating questions on the nature of foreknowledge! Finally, back in Jeremiah 18:7-10, God is reflecting through the prophet what disasters may or may not happen to nations and kingdoms, even using the word “reconsider” (NIV) in v. 10. 

In many ways, this Open View fits well with my upbringing, education, and encounter with the Biblical text. Much like Dr. Boyd's strong caution to Christians in his Myth of a Christian Nation materials resonate with my Christian tradition, largely Anabaptist. I can see, however, how this had to feel absolutely astounding to someone coming from a largely Calvinist perspective. The uproar it has created in American Evangelical circles is somewhat puzzling to me. This must surely be a sign that I am not among the elect. While this view and the session that Dr. Boyd led was fascinating and presented some good Biblical material to work with, I'm not sure if it's really all that compelling of material for someone in the Anabaptist tradition, and seems to be more of a reaction against Calvinism. I haven't seen any Anabaptist scholarly responses to the Open View, so it would be interesting to see if any of those do exist.

See also: I Told Mennonites to "Go to Hell" (and they liked it!) - GregBoyd.org

No comments:

Post a Comment