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.
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….
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.
There is much to commend here, but I best stop for now. (See footnotes below for further comment)
 Terence E. Fretheim, Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2010), 15-16.
 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