What do we know of evil and sin?: A Response to Open Theism from Christ Concentrated Theism

I have been having a quick discussion, once again, around the issue of so called ‘Open Theism.’ I had a “friend” on Facebook who is a strong proponent for Open Theism, so strong that he helped organize (I think) the first Open Theology theological conference (last year) that has ever taken place in the United States. This quick discussion (I really did not engage that much this time, although I have more in the past) is prompting me to write this post. So this post will be briefly sketching and engaging with Open Theism, and its antidote provided through the theological thinking of Karl Barth.


For my Old Testament class at Princeton Theological Seminary, we were assigned reading from Old Testament scholar, Terence Fretheim’s book Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters. As is apparent from the sub-title, the theme of the book is to engage with the problem of God and evil (theodicy); more particularly with God and human suffering (vis-à-vis natural disasters, human caused disasters, etc.). I was excited to get into this book, but once I made it through chapter one I quickly realized Fretheim’s method to answering this purported problem (of God and evil, i.e. theodicy) was going to be his employment of ‘Open theology’ categories. Maybe you have never heard of Open theology, here is an example of it from Terence Fretheim applied to answering how human beings relate to God and creation in purely ‘free’ ways (supposedly):

Though human beings certainly need to hear that they often think of themselves more highly than they ought to think, it is also important for them to hear that they often think of themselves less highly than they ought to think. To speak less highly of the human is to diminish the quality of God’s own work. And this is the case not least because of such continuing divine evaluations of them as good. The creational commands in Genesis 1:28 and God’s engagement with the human in 2:19-20 indicate that God values human beings, places confidence in them, and honors what they do and say, though not uncritically. Human words and deeds count; they make a difference to the world and to God, not least because God has chosen to use human agents in getting God’s work done in the world…. We need constantly to be reminded that the godness of God cannot be bought at the expense of creaturely diminishment.

Another word that can be used to designate the goodness of creatures is “free.” One way in which the creation accounts witness to this reality is the seventh day of creation (Gen. 2:1-3); this day on which God rests (not human beings) is testimony to God’s suspension of creative activity, which allows the creatures, each in its own way, to be what they were created to be. God thereby gives to all creatures a certain independence and freedom. With regard to human beings, God leaves room for genuine decisions as they exercise their God-given power (see already 2:19). With regard to nonhuman creatures, God releases them from “tight divine control” and permits them to be themselves as the creatures they are. The latter includes the becoming of creation, from the movement of tectonic plates to volcanic activity, to the spread of viruses, to the procreation of animals. This divine commitment to the creatures entails an ongoing divine constraint and restraint in the exercise of power, a divine commitment that we often wish has not been made, especially when suffering and death are in view. But God will remain true to God’s commitments, come what may.[1]


And so God creates a dynamic world in which the future is open to a number of possibilities and in which creaturely activity is crucial for proper creational developments. In other words, God chooses  to establish an interdependent relationship with the creation; God chooses to work with others in creating. Certain constants are in place: seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night (Gen. 8:22). But beyond that, the future of the world is characterized by a remarkable open-endedness, in which more than God is involved….[2]

What stands out most immediately and prominently is how for Fretheim in order for creation to be ‘free’ it needs to be independent from God, and so he can conclude that in creation something ‘more than God is involved.’ But this is precisely the point of departure between thinking Christianly or from God’s Self-revelation in Christ, and thinking philosophically about God’s relation to His grace contained creation. By trying to create space for human suffering, evil in the world, etc. Fretheim unnecessarily unhinges God from creation in a way that God is placed into competition with creation; leaving room for creation to act independently from God. Which for Fretheim allows him to leave creation open, not just for human beings, but for God himself; and so this then becomes the way for Fretheim to start thinking about why humans suffer, and in a way that does not implicate God (since there is ‘more than God involved’).

What Fretheim does, though, is in order to explain God and evil (theodicy), he sacrifices orthodox Christian reality for heterodox Christian un-reality. If he was thinking christologically, he is offering us an adoptionistic version by unhinging humanity from God in the way that he does (I will have to get into this further later).

But since I am running out of time for this post, let me get to the antidote to Fretheim’s ‘Open’ thinking. We should not attempt, as Christians, to elevate our own reasoning and interpretive capacities beyond their given reality (especially in light of the ‘Fall’ and the noetic effects of the ‘Fall’). When we attempt to move beyond God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ we indeed are exalting ourselves too much, and at least signaling what kind of theo-anthropology and doctrine of sin we are operating from (and how that shapes our hermeneutic and the confidence we have in accessing reality apart from God in Christ). I believe Fretheim in particular, and Open Theology, in general, move within this kind of analytical philosophical venture of doing theology that thinks beyond and outside of Christ while at the same time trying to work its way back to Christ (which would be Pelagian). But I digress. Here, I suggest, is the proper way to think of God and human suffering; and how to do so from a genuinely Christ-centered way versus the philosophical way that Fretheim and Open Theology gives us.

What does it mean? Is it not the opposite of what we might expect from the news that God became Man? Here there is suffering. Notice that it is here for the first time in the Confession that the great problem of evil and suffering meets us directly. Already, of course, we have frequently had to refer to it. But according to the letter this is the first time we have an indication of the fact that in the relation between Creator and creature everything is not at its best, that lawlessness and destruction hold sway, that pain is added and suffered. Here for the first time the shadowy side of existence enters into our field of view, and not in the first article, which speaks of God the Creator. Not in the description of creation as heaven and earth, but here in the description of the existence of the Creator become creature, evil appears; here afar off death also becomes visible. The fact that this is so at least means this: that discretion is demanded in all descriptions of wickedness and evil as being to some extent independent. When that was done later, it was more or less overlooked that all this enters the field only in connexion with Jesus Christ. He has suffered, He has rendered visible what the nature of evil is, of man’s revolt against God. What do we know of evil and sin? What do we know of what is called suffering or what death means? Here we get to know it. Here appears this complete darkness in its reality and truth. Here complaint is raise and punished, here the relation between God and man is really made clear. What are all our sighs, what is all that man thinks he knows about his folly and sinfulness and about the lost state of the world, what is all speculation about suffering and death beside what becomes manifest here? He, He has suffered, who is true God and true man. All independent talk on the subject—that is, talk cut loose from Him—will necessarily be inadequate and imperfect. Unless talk on this matter goes out from this centre, it will be unreal. That man can bear the most frightful strokes of Fate and comes through untouched by anything as through a shower of rain: that can be seen by us to-day. We are simply untouched either by suffering or by evil in its proper reality; we know that now. So we can repeatedly escape from knowledge of our guilt and sin. We can only achieve proper knowledge, when we know that He who is true God and true man has suffered. In other words, it needs faith to see what suffering is. Here there was suffering. Everything else that we know as suffering is unreal suffering compared with what has happened here. Only from this standpoint, by sharing in the suffering He suffered, can we recognize that fact and the cause of suffering everywhere in the creaturely cosmos, secretly and openly.[3]

There is much to commend here, but I best stop for now. (See footnotes below for further comment)

[1] Terence E. Fretheim, Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2010), 15-16.

[2] Ibid., 17.

[3] Karl Barth, Dogmatics In Outline (Great Britain: The Camelot Press Ltd., 1949), 103-04. This book is an off the top (for Barth) series of lectures that he gave to students at the University of Bonn (Germany) in the summer of 1946. It was his explication of The Apostles’ Creed, and the quote I have from him above is his reflection on the part of the creed that goes: ‘Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell….’

What Barth is taking seriously is the theological/christological and biblical reality that all of creation is within the domain of God’s grace in Christ; and furthermore, that all of creation’s point and purpose, then, is in and for and from Christ. If this is so then what becomes impossible is to attempt to think about anything unhinged, as it were, from Christ (so against Fretheim, Open Theology, et. al.).

 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. 19 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. ~Colossians 1:15-20

14 thoughts on “What do we know of evil and sin?: A Response to Open Theism from Christ Concentrated Theism

  1. Open theism is, to me, when it’s really thought-out, a sophisticated and subtle understanding of the relation of God, freedom and time that is completely wrong.


  2. Bobby, read the section on creation in Dogmatics in Outline (not to mention CD III), and you’ll find that Barth himself “unhinges” creation from God in its independence, such that it is free to act over against God. This is the reality, intended by God, which sin exploits to make possible the “impossibility” of a creature for all intents and purposes not dependent upon its creator.

    Defend yourself better, and critique Fretheim v Barth better.


  3. If “adoptionism” is a reference to Christology, in that Christ is only divine by adoption, it’s a heresy. If it is a reference to the way in which the creature is in any sense the child, rather than merely the creation, of God, it is simple fact supported massively by Scripture and orthodox theology.


  4. Matt,

    I just finished all of DIO, point me to the pertinent section; I don’t recall Barth unhinging God from creation in the way you suggest. I know you’re a Barth scholar, but you still need to substantiate your assertions for all to see, otherwise they simply remain assertions and all I have to do to refute you is counter-assert (even if this is a blog). In other words you are moving too fast!

    Clearly there is an independent, albeit contingent reality for creation; and Barth’s conception of grace as its inner reality makes this clear in a robust God-world distinction and relation. But there is not more than God in the way that Fretheim asserts for Barth, and the way Barth thinks undercuts Fretheim’s reading of things by thinking much more dogmatically and thus less “open,” in the sense that Fretheim thinks.

    Again, substantiate your point. Don’t just do a little drive by comment; be the scholar that you are and act like one when you comment.

    When I referred to adoptionism it had to do with the christological heresy, not salvation per se; of course I affirm adoption as important metaphor for Christian salvation a la Galatians etc.


  5. Well-taken, Bobby. Rip into me, that’s fine. But you have in no way demonstrated that Fretheim is guilty of something Barth is not. There is absolutely more than God in play, for both! The independent creaturely reality is true for Barth as well. Christ does not determine our actuality, only our original and ultimate reality before God. Human and creaturely agency is free and independent of God even in Barth, and Christ does not change this. We are the moral agents sine qua non for Barth’s theodicy as well. So if you want to prove Fretheim a heretic, you need to cover exactly the ground you said you didn’t have time for here. Go do that, and don’t slam me for a “drive by” when I’m pushing you to do better than a hack job.


  6. Hey Matt,

    Who ripped into who?! I’d prefer the rhetoric of ‘less than God’ than more. Demonstrate that what I did here was a hack job, and quit dropping little pearls of wisdom that you aren’t willing to substantiate.

    Barth and Fretheim are not close in my reading, if they are close in yours then show me how. You want me to do what you are unwilling to do yourself apparently. I don’t want you to push me, at least not in the way you like to do it; as a know it all.

    We might be the moral agents sine qua non for Barth, but theo-anthropologically grounded in Christ’s vicarious humanity; is this the case for Fretheim? In my reading this is not the case for Fretheim, he does not have a theological tie, he does not use hypostatic union and vicarious humanity to place humanity into ‘conversation’ with God. That’s the basic point I am trying to make in this post, and you’ve read right over it or something.


  7. While in DiO it’s a minor, passed-over point that creation is distinct and free in its existential independence from God—which is not in any way to suggest that it is not subject as creature before the Creator—this is the point made far more clearly in the opening section of CD III.1. The relevant moral freedom of creaturely agents, undetermined by God, is part and parcel of Barth’s opposition to natural theology. Christ shows us what appears to be a counterfactual, because we are not existentially determined, as human creatures, by his existence. Only by faith do we even approach acceptance and embrace of that counterfactual, and then we do so precisely in its witness against ourselves and the use we have made of our freedom. Our multifarious agency in the world is what has determined its orders, in the whole and in every part. God it the ktistēs, but we are the demiourgoi in whose hands creation suffers its many changes. The world in its totality, in all the arrangements of its parts, is this way because we shaped it so and continue so to shape it. Providence itself is twisted as it passes through our hands.


  8. Yeah, that’s the kind of comment that is helpful and constructive, Matt! Now how does that NOT undercut Fretheim’s method and approach? How does that fit with humans as co-creators with God, leaving both God and human open to the twists and turns of natural history? And how does Fretheim avoid collapsing God into, or at least making God contingent upon the contingencies and exigencies of natural history?


  9. Bobby, you have not shown that Fretheim says something materially at odds, let alone methodologically at odds, with what I wrote re: Barth. It’s also not a situation where Torrancean vicarious humanity is in play. Vicarious humanity does not make any active difference in the present or historical actualities of human agency.

    If Fretheim is really at odds with Barth, it isn’t by attributing a high role to human agency shaping the world. They would seem to agree on that point, from what you’ve cited. Cocreation isn’t about the origins of all things; it’s about our free and so also sinful shaping of providential reality. It is a claim about the best of what is possible for us in our independent agency when by faith we are resposible to and in correspondence with God.


  10. This is why I have been pushing you to do better than your assumption that open theology and Barth are diametrically opposed there. You bear the burden of proof, not me. And if others didn’t see the weakness in your attempt to prove Fretheim wrong, I can’t help that. I did, and pushed you. Do better in showing what Fretheim thinks here, and how in detail Barth says something solidly opposed to it. You haven’t convinced me, as a reader of Barth, that I should disagree with Fretheim.


  11. But Matt, you are presuming that what you wrote about Barth is not materially at odds from Fretheim. The difference between what you have done so far, and what I have done, is that I have directly quoted Fretheim and Barth; and the basis of your argument is coming, still from your assertions about Barth. It is not a Torrancean VHC I am thinking from here, per se, but in the way that Barth thinks about the ground of creation itself, and the particularist element of that in the kind of ‘Chalcedonian pattern’ that Hunsinger for example helpfully identifies in Barth’s theology as programmatic. If you haven’t read Fretheim, how can you be so forceful in your sense that he and Barth are not at odds. Fretheim does not provide the kind of theological nuancing that Barth does, dogmatically. What I see Fretheim doing is thinking of an ontology of humanity outwith the ontology of God in Christ. In other words, thinking of an moral character of humanity that stands in the realm of a pure grace that annexes creation itself into a realm of quasi-absolute mode of existence that stands, again,in its own independent existence apart from the imago Christi.

    The burden for you would be to substantially demonstrate that Barth indeed (by quoting pertinent pieces from Barth) stands in line with what I have shared with Fretheim, and not materially against (which I still think Barth does).

    So you haven’t convinced me of as a reader of Fretheim or Barth that I should agree with you. If you haven’t read Fretheim yourself (have you?) how can you push me to read him better? That would be a strange thing. If you read critiques of Fretheim they place him clearly in Open Theism, if not full blown process theology. If Fretheim thinks from Open Theism, how can you assert that Barth is not diametrically opposed to Fretheim, esp. in light of Bruce McCormack’s impressive piece in his edited book Engaging the Doctrine of God that uses Barth’s Trinitarian theology as a critique and defeater of Open Theism.

    What you need to do better at, Matt, is demonstrate your assertions by providing some quotes from Barth directly that would place him at odds with Fretheim (and not just recommend CD III). And since DIO is more manageable and terse, and since it is what I am appealing to in the post, then at least demonstrate how I took Barth out of context there by my application of him here against Fretheim. I won’t feel the burden proof in the way you assert I should until you at minimum demonstrate to me how I have misused Barth vis-a-vis Fretheim.


  12. And as soon as you take the kind of ‘patronizing’ edge off of your comments, then I will calm down in kind in re to the way I am commenting (and I say patronizing because so far it seems like you are lazily resting on your credentials and research to make your arguments–which to me is a black hole, or just silent–Yes you have provided sketches of your understanding and reading of Barth on a doctrine of creation and theo-anthropology, but you have not directly appealed to Barth in context to substantiate your reading, and so this does not allow me to make my own judgments about your reading which might be right or it might not be right). I just don’t see how you can push me to be a better reader of either Barth or Fretheim when you haven’t given me anything (right here in this thread) to read from Barth in particular that would support your claims that I am indeed misreading Barth against Fretheim.


  13. And Matt,

    I don’t actually expect you to provide a paper or quotes here, but I am just signaling that I am not ready to concede my point yet in lieu of further evidence from Barth himself. And, in principle I will stand on the basic syllogism that if Barth is against Open Theism both formally and materially, and Fretheim is an Open Theist, then Barth is against Fretheim.


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