Will God Forgive Us for Our Theology?
A Book Review by Jack Hoehn | 9 November 2020 |
Richard Rice, The Future of Open Theism—From Antecedents to Opportunities, (Downer’s Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2020) ISBN 978-0-8308-5286-4.
Dr. Richard Rice is a theology professor well known at Loma Linda University and before that at La Sierra University but likely better known outside Adventism than inside it. Perhaps this book can help change that.
The title of this review comes from the last page of his book reminding us that “No attempt to grasp the grandeur and beauty of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ—no matter how expansive its scope, elaborate its expression, or intricate its logic—will ever be more than a faint approximation of its object. Our efforts to do justice to the biblical portrait of God will never succeed because our objective lies beyond the reach of human ability.”
Early Adventists long resisted the concept of “theology” as vigorously as they resisted the imposition of a “creed.” William T. Hyde, in September of 1965, for example, introduced his Theology of an Adventist with this admission, “Seventh-day Adventist have never had a creed or a detailed theology.” We have always had doctrines or teachings based on our understanding of the Bible. But every doctrine or belief has implications about God. So in one sense a theology is an attempt to explain what our doctrines say about God. But this may be reciprocal because what we think about God surely also influences our doctrines. For example, a doctrinal question such as “Is the 7th day of the week the true holy Sabbath?” also leads to a discussion of what kind of God would care, and if so, why?
Why Should We Care?
If theology is the human attempt to understand the superhuman, and all attempts must necessarily be inadequate, why should any “practical Adventist in the pew” worry about what might be dismissed as esoteric (impractical) speculations (guesses) about theoretical (not practical) ideas about God? Is it all academic nonsense like the infamous “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”
There is an answer to that objection. Because, as mentioned above, every doctrine we profess says something about God. And if our doctrines are to have any validity, there needs to be a God behind them. Sabbath, state of the dead, resurrection of anyone, creation, Eden, fall, redemption, sin, holiness, baptism, sanctification, justification, Bible, church—all become frivolous “angels on the head of a pin” questions if not founded on the reality, logic, reliability, solidity, worth, character, motives, methods, and intents of what we call God.
All can indulge in religions without theology. We can do what we fancy and call it “our belief.” But we cannot profess those religious indulgences to be anything more than preference, we cannot claim them to be “truth,” unless we are willing to test and explore those beliefs with the tools available to minds—logic, consistency, consequences, and morality. Theology is the attempt to be logical and consistent as we evaluate the consequences and morality of our ideas about God.
A religion founded on the sands of preference and opinion is certainly something humans can live with. But a religion based on as firm a foundation of truth (as much as is possible for humans to attain) is something worth living for.
Opening Up to God
The theology Richard Rice named as “the openness of God” is an attempt to reform classical theologies formulated by Christians such as St. Augustine, Thomas of Aquinas, and John Calvin, who in turn had been informed by classical Greek philosophers’ ideas about God.
Seventh-day Adventists who first focused on doctrines gradually became involved in using the Bible supplemented with the inspiration of Ellen White to organize, explain, and glorify the character of the God they were worshiping. If Adventists wish to continue to consider our religious experience as “coming into the Truth,” surely we must continue to seek for a robust and reliable theology of the God behind our Truth. Ellen White has given this challenge to the theology of Adventism:
“Christ has given to the church a sacred charge. Every member should be a channel through which God can communicate to the world the treasures of His grace, the unsearchable riches of Christ. There is nothing that the Saviour desires so much as agents who will represent to the world His Spirit and His character.”
The Character of God
The reason we need to consider our theology of who and what God is lies behind such common everyday Adventist sentiments such as these:
“Well, God is in control.” – of what, of whom, when and when not?
“This is surely the time of the end.” – is “the time of the end” also the “end of time?”
“God knows the end from the beginning.” – does knowing “all that can be known” include the unknowable?
Does knowing the desired end mean he knows precisely the paths free-willed humans will take while achieving that end?
“God can do anything.” – do we mean he can do the logically impossible?
You remember those deep grade-school theological questions like,
“Can God create a stone too heavy for him to lift?”
“Prophecy is just history that God knows in advance.” – Are prophecies previews of history
or previews of possible history? Are all prophecies conditional?
And what are the conditions regarding Ellen White’s prophecies;
was she shown what must happen, or what could happen?
“I have absolute assurance of salvation.” – Is your assurance free of your ability to choose actions
and activities with consequences in this life and the next?
“I hope I will be saved.” – is your uncertainty because God is limited in his power to save?
Does God already know if you will be saved in the end? If so, why worry? If not, should you keep on worrying?
“This church will go through to the end.” — God revealed it;
Ellen White said it; I believe it. Does that settle it?
“Jesus loves me, this I know.” — but does God the Father love you too?
Jesus cares; does the Father care or judge? Jesus weeps; does the Father weep or punish?
Is God “The Unmoved Mover” or is the Eternal truly
“touched with the feelings of our infirmity”?
“God never changes”—this may refer to God’s character of love,
but does it also refer to his actions? Does God only act, or does he react?
What does the Bible mean when it says God repents,
God was grieved, God heard our cries? Why pray, if God never changes?
Huge Questions, Small Book
Who God is and what God’s actions both inside and outside of Scripture tell us about him are not small questions. Theologians are noted for proving they have PhDs by using German, Latin, Greek and Hebrew instead of English words, perhaps emphasizing that God is too great a subject to be limited to anyone’s mother tongue. So non-theologians can rightly be cautious about struggling with their scholarship.
Richard Rice’s book is adequately scholarly and includes footnotes on many of its pages. But the good news is that it is a small book, just 238 pages long, and most of his ideas and suggestions about “open theism” are discussed in approachable English. You do not need to be a theologian or linguist to understand him. If you can read and understand a Sabbath School quarterly, you can read and understand these big ideas and their consequences from this book.
This is not to say that our ideas will be unchallenged by what “open theism” is suggesting. Our “common pew” or “Sabbath School quarterly” theology is going to be challenged. Because “open theism” is a renewed challenge to “classic theology,” based on making theology more biblical and less “classical.”
In this book review I am not going to try to simplify the openness approach to understanding God. You need to read the book, not just listen to my ideas about the book. But I do want to encourage your investment in opening up to God in a new, more Biblical way. I have found great comfort and increased clarity in my thinking about God and his character by open theism’s focusing on two Biblical truths.
Love and Freedom
The issues about who God is and how he acts have to do with the Biblical values of love and freedom. This book has made clear to me why I have never been tempted to whisper into Deanne’s ear, “Sweetheart, I control you so much!” as affirmation of my love.
In this interesting, beautiful, but often seemingly “out of control” world, God’s long suffering, his abundance of mercy, his tolerance of sinners, his apparent slowness in “taking back control” from Satan—these things can remind us that “control” is not an attribute of love. True love, in fact, is destroyed by control. Freedom alone lets love do its perfect work. With Richard Rice and other helpful open theists, I now see from Scripture and other truth tellers what God’s creating in love this world with freedom and its consequences should lead me to expect.
God’s power and wisdom and might is not expressed with “God being in control.” The God of open theism’s power and wisdom and might is expressed in how much, how deeply, how amazingly, how unselfishly, how overwhelmingly God is not in control, but in love. God is not into controlling us but into responding to us and working for us as we respond to and work for him. Everything we value in Adventism can be sharpened and refocused when we see more clearly and represent more faithfully the character of the God upon whom we build our religious teachings.
 Dr. Rice is of course known to Adventists from his When Bad Things Happen to God’s People (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 1985); Reason and the Contours of Faith (Riverside, California : La Sierra University Press, 1991); Reign of God—An Introduction to Christian Theology from a Seventh-day Adventist Perspective (Berrien Springs, Michigan: Andrews University Press, 1997), but as Reinder Bruinsma wrote in a recent Spectrum magazine review of this book, “little in-depth discussion has so far taken place among Adventist theologians about the basic ideas of Open Theism.”
 Richard Rice, The Future of Open Theism—From Antecedents to Opportunities (InterVarsity Press, 2020), p. 238.
 William T. Hyde, Theology of an Adventist—A Biblical Theology (Angwin, California: Pacific Union College, mimeographed 1966).
 According to Wikipedia this exact question was never documented by theologians, but was mentioned to ridicule scholastics involved in topics of no practical use while ignoring more consequential issues. Wikipedia.
 Richard Rice was first to use this designation in his 1980 book The Openness of God, published by the Review and Herald, and again in the 1994 The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God that he coauthored with Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger.
 Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1911), p. 600.
 Hebrews 4:15.
 Not all are identified with an “open theism” label, but I find Richard Rice’s theology confirmed especially well by:
Sigve K. Tonstad, God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2016) and
Revelation—Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2019).
Gregory A. Boyd, “Satan and the Problem of Evil—Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2001). The great controversy from the Bible without Ellen White.
Jean Sheldon, No Longer Naked & Ashamed—Discovering that God Is Not an Abuser (Denver, Colorado: Outskirts Press, 2009). God from a female Adventist theologian’s point of view.
Thomas Jay Oord, editor, Creation Made Free—Open Theology Engaging Science (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2009). Applying open theism to creation.
Jack Hoehn writes from Walla Walla, Washington.