Nov 27 2009

Open Theism & Theistic Evolution: mysteriously friendly

Category: Uncategorizedharmonicminer @ 8:58 am

Two popular notions among certain Christian academics these days are open theism and theistic evolution.

What’s interesting to me is that there is a group of theologians and a few theistic scientists who subscribe to both.  They seem not to be too concerned about the contradiction between:

1) theistic evolution, which basically posits a God who just about never changes his mind in the process of creation, and pretty much never intervenes in a significant way in the working out of the laws of nature as their interplay leads to the universe we see, and almost requires some form of reasonably strong determinism in order to allow its adherents to say “God created the human race,” and

2)  open theism, which posits a God who changes his mind sometimes, can be surprised at how things turn out, doesn’t know the future exhaustively in every fine detail, but only those future events He has predestined in a specific way, and so on.  (Openists would say that God knows all possible futures, including how He will work out His will and foreordained events in each one.)

These sound like two different Gods to me.  And I’m not too sure that either one of them is the God that I worship, though I suppose I’m willing to be convinced by compelling evidence and logic.

A very prominent Christian biologist, Francis Collins, in his book The Language of God, essentially admits that some form of relatively exhaustive predestination is required in order for God to have used evolution to bring about humanity.  Collins doesn’t like the phrase “theistic evolution,” preferring his own term, “biologos,” but as far as I can see, they are the same general idea.   Collins’ distaste for the phrase “theistic evolution” seems to have more to do with the difficulty of selling it to the public than with the inaccuracy of it.  Collins specifically rejects the notion that God did anything directly to bring about humanity via evolution, other than set the conditions of the big bang in the first place.  Presumably he does this to avoid being placed in the company of those foolish, benighted believers in Intelligent Design.  That wouldn’t be respectable, y’know.  So his acquiescence to some form of “pre-creation” determinism makes sense.  How else to say God created humanity, rather than merely a universe in which a planet like Earth might come about, on which life might arise, which might evolve into intelligent beings who might happen to have a spiritual nature as well?

From the Biologos website (the organization founded by Francis Collins, but from which he withdrew to accept an appointment from President Obama to head the National Institutes of Health):

Because evolution involves seemingly “random” mutations, it seems that the Earth could have been the home of a different assortment of creatures.  But belief in a supernatural creator leaves the possibility that human beings were fully intended.  An omniscient creator could also have created the Universe’s natural laws so as to inevitably result in human beings. (emphasis mine)

As in Collins’ book, this seems a clear admission that some form of determinism is required for theistic evolution, as understood by one of its chief scientific proponents.

Open theist Greg Boyd, in his book God of the Possible, presents a view of God’s created order in which the future is not pre-determined, so much so that God does not know it exhaustively.  To quote from the Amazon description of his book,

Boyd sidesteps the more abstruse theological debates surrounding this issue in favor of a patient, but not pedantic, exposition of a “motif of future openness” in biblical narrative and prophecy. These biblical texts repeatedly portray God as changing plans in response to human decisions, viewing future events as contingent and even being disappointed at how events turn out. Boyd clearly believes the debate over open theism has gotten off to an unfortunate start, as disagreements about the “settledness” of the future have unnecessarily been interpreted as challenges to God’s omniscience or sovereignty.

In other words, in contrast to process theology, in which God is seen to change, develop and “learn,” open theism is presented by Boyd as merely “the open view of the future,” i.e., it’s more a statement about the kind of universe God chose to create than about God Himself.

Understandably, historic Christian understandings are often seen to be threatened by either of these perspectives.  My point here is not to challenge them directly, but to point out that they challenge each other.  That makes it very interesting that there are so many academics who appear to believe both.

Consider:  if God brings about his fore-ordained will in an “open future” universe, He is a God who clearly is constantly interacting with it, adjusting circumstances to reflect events that were NOT fore-ordained, and which God did not directly choose.  When the first bacterium turned left instead of right, God moved its food source where it would find it anyway.   (Hey you, the orphan germ, can’t you see where the kitchen is?)   And surely there would be many such events all along the developmental path of life on earth.

The point?  It seems to me that the Intelligent Design view of the development of life is more suited  to the “open future” view (of the open theists) than “theistic evolution” is.   Yet the open theists love to keep company with the theistic evolutionists, to the extent that they appear on the same academic programs at universities, apparently because the programmers of these conferences believe that theistic evolution and open theism somehow support each other.

I guess they buy the notion of a God who doesn’t know how it all turns out, but predetermined it anyway to make sure it turned out like He wanted.

I suppose it’s also possible that God cheats at solitaire.

14 Responses to “Open Theism & Theistic Evolution: mysteriously friendly”

  1. Melody says:

    I’ve read Greg Boyd’s book, “The Myth Of A Christian Nation” and found it one of those books where I’m saying, “Yes, yes, yes…NO!” He tends to take a bizarre leap of logic every 10 leaps or so. And the bad ones are really bad. These kind of theologies are popularized by preachers, speakers and writers who have a smooth turn of the tongue or pen and know enough scripture to convince many whose command of the whole Bible and maturity in the Christian walk is less than theirs. For all that he knows of the Old Testament he draws very differnt conclusions about what it all means than I ever would. It seems to me that Greg might be a philosopher first and a Christian second.

  2. harmonicminer says:

    I suppose I’ll reserve judgment until I read it, but Boyd’s latest book, Jesus Versus Jehovah, looks to be one that is in considerable danger of going off the rails.

    I have to wonder if it’s possible that modern philosopher/theologians think they know more about how to interpret the O.T. than 1st and 2nd century Christians in direct apostolic succession, or Talmudic scholars, for that matter. Some of this is a logic outworking, it seems to me, of sola scriptura, in its ahistorical viewpoint that denies that traditions of interpretation from the patristic period have any claim on us now.

    And I keep wondering: why do so many of the open theists and theistic evolutionists fall on the political and social left?

  3. Melody says:

    One of the difficulties I have with Greg is that his theology seems to start on a given subject with his own premise or thought and then he works to verify with scripture. He tends to give a tremendous amount of creedence to worldly leaders (such as Ghandi, MLK, etc.) My preference is to look at what the scripture actually says and then form a conclusion. I think exegesis is a safer way of avoiding error. Greg doesn’t seem to worry too much about historical fact in drawing conclusions. He mostly parrots the liberal university philosophy professor line – which seems to be where he developed his own philosopies. Strange.

  4. harmonicminer says:

    It’s especially interesting to me that he is such a firm defender of the validity of scripture, so much so that Lee Strobel included him as one of the scholars interviewed in “The Case for Christ.” Of course that was in 1998….

    Boyd is a fan of the “Christus Victor” theory of the atonement, if I understand what I’ve read here and there. I’m not sure if that’s relevant to understanding his viewpoint on other issues, but I suspect it is…. still researching in my, uh, spare time.

  5. Paul Pavao says:

    Help me out with something here. I consider myself a theistic evolutionist. I seem to keep reading that theistic evolutionists believe that God never “intervenes in a significant way” in the laws of nature–as you say here.

    I don’t believe that. For me, theistic evolution means that I believe the earth when it gives up information about itself and its history. Evidence says life as we know it evolved. There’s nothing in science that can address whether God intervened at points along the evolutionary trail. Was it his will and purpose to make a certain mutation an A rather than a G in some creature’s DNA? Did he do that repeatedly? Did he never do that?

    Who knows! Neither science nor Scripture can answer that question. So, in my opinion, theistic evolution has to leave it unanswered as well. Some individual can guess and give his opinion, but I can’t imagine why anyone’s opinion would matter on that issue. No one has any way of knowing?

    Belief in God shouldn’t come from science. God desires to be known in the inward parts, and he bears testimony to the human spirit through nature. As for his Son, Jesus, the testimony he bears, according to Scripture, is that “he who has the Son has the Life, and he who does not have the Son does not have the Life.” It is the supernatural life of real Christians that is the testimony of God.

    None of that has anything to do with science. Science tells us about evolution. That’s interesting to me as a theist because it tells me something about God, who has declared himself to be Creator in his revelation to man through Israel first and later the body of Christ.

    But the idea that theistic evolution precludes God’s intervention in evolution or creation … that doesn’t make any sense to me.

  6. harmonicminer says:

    “But the idea that theistic evolution precludes God’s intervention in evolution or creation … that doesn’t make any sense to me.”

    Paul, it doesn’t make sense to me, either. But that is the position of those who defined the concept of theistic evolution, as far as I can tell. I am not sure that you are one, as defined by the people who created the term, based on your description of your beliefs.

    What you describe (God’s intervention at various places along the way to bring about the result He wanted) is exactly what some Intelligent Design advocates say. And those believers in ID are the ones that theistic evolutionists specifically oppose.

    In principle, if we learn enough about how it “would have worked” without any intervention by God, then we might be able to detect God’s interventions here and there into the overall system that He created. But that is the very point that is denied by evolutionists of all kinds, theistic or otherwise. The essential core of “evolution” is that the mutations were random, and the circumstances that led to some of them thriving and others not thriving were also random.

  7. Melody says:

    -“It’s especially interesting to me that he is such a firm defender of the validity of scripture, so much so that Lee Strobel included him as one of the scholars interviewed in “The Case for Christ.””-

    One of the dangers that occurs in the western Christian world today is what I call ‘Hollywood Christianity’. The bigger one’s church is (and size is always advertised) the more credibility one has in the book selling world and the pastor’s convention world and the “making a name for oneself world”. Thus, the endorsement from other pastors with big churches printed on the cover of one’s book, etc. The one thing most pastor’s don’t seem to do is to actually read the other guy’s book or sit under his teaching for any appreciable amount of time in order to test his true theology. We have such a mix-master of theological thought out there today that it’s every man for himself. The one book few seem interested in reading and talking about is the Bible. I can picture us all on judegment day – Confused Modern Day Christian: “But Lord, I read every book that was published by Zondervan, Intervarsity Press, Regal Books, etc. and I went to 3 pastor’s conventions every year, so how could I have gotten so much wrong?” God: “I gave you my book, in your native language, and offered the Holy Spirit to help you understand; why didn’t you study it?” CMDC: “I didn’t like so much of what it said!” God: “Really!”

  8. harmonicminer says:

    Paul, continuing, I strongly suspect that “theistic evolution” is an oxymoron, if you allow the word “theistic” to mean what it has traditionally meant to theists, and the word “evolution” to mean what it has traditionally meant to evolutionists.

    “Theistic evolution” is an attempt to have it both ways, to get along with (and keep the good regard of) the secular, atheist establishment while clinging to a belief in a God who created US, not just a universe where a planet like Earth might happen, and where life might happen, and where something like us might happen to evolve.

    I checked out your webiste, and I agree that there is dishonesty in the portrayal and caricature of both sides. So: I avoid that by taking the people who “own the terms” at their word, not by foisting an extra layer of meaning on top of evolution and claiming “God did it that way”, nor by deleting an essential meaning of the Creation Story, which is that God made US, exactly as we are, with full intention and specificity in His design of us.

    Just curious, Paul: are you aware of and the work of Hugh Ross, Fuz Rana, and their team?

    In the meantime, you might want to check out my “Next Great Awakening series” at a tab at the top of the page.

  9. amuzikman says:


    I browsed your website in response to your posted comment. May I suggest a book to you for consideration? It is by Michael Behe and is entitled “Darwin’s Black Box”. The book is published by Free Press and it is available at It presents a significant challenge to Darwinian theorists. Let me know what you think.

  10. anthony says:

    The only problem I can see is that nobody can put God in a box. His thoughts are above ours, his ways are higher, it would be in perhaps a similar sense as if the family dog was trying to figure your mind out. Its impossible to say exactly what it is that he knows or thinks. For one to suggest that would almost seem that they are talking about a peer. Many people imagine a perfected version of themselves up in the clouds and refer to that concept when they want to ask themselves WWJD? But when you start off on the premise of knowing the ins and outs of his thought process you set yourself up for disappointment because that imagined God in your head pales in comparison to his divne majesty and will ultimately let ya down.

  11. harmonicminer says:

    Hmmm… we can never know the “ins and outs” of His thought processes…. if He needs to think…. I suspect He doesn’t, in any sense similar to what we do, since thinking is mostly about generating more knowledge from previous, less complete knowledge…. God probably does not “think” any more than he “eats”…. Thinking is for creatures who don’t already know every knowable thing…. But it any case, He has definitely let us know how He wants the “ins and outs” of OUR thought processes to work, by revelation, via scripture, and via the natural world, with its discoverable laws of logic and rationality, etc. Those laws of thought are self-correcting…. the universe is a fine teacher…. if we think wrong, we die.

  12. anthony says:

    My point is that both viewpoints start out on the premise of knowing the mind od God.

  13. harmonicminer says:

    Anthony, did you read my previous comment carefully? What I suggested was that God has “let us know how He wants the “ins and outs” of OUR thought processes to work, by revelation, via scripture, and via the natural world, with its discoverable laws of logic and rationality, etc. Those laws of thought are self-correcting…. the universe is a fine teacher…. if we think wrong, we die.”

    The Orthodox Christians of the east are much clearer on this point than some in the Roman and Protestant traditions. That is, the Orthodox accept that God is largely unknowable, and *other* from us, and we cannot know anything about Him that He does not reveal to us.

    My point was that Christians believe that God has revealed Himself in two ways, special revelation (for us, that means scripture) and general revelation (nature and the universe). It is not necessary for us to start out thinking we “know the mind of God” to attempt to interpret and make sense of either of these revelations, except to the very limited extent that we assume God wants us to try to do that.

    Is it presumptuous to think we “know the mind of God” that much, namely that He wants us to pay attention to His two forms of revelation? No, not for a Theist. If you think it is some kind of condemnation to suggest that Christians think they know the mind of God by that much, then you are likely a Deist, or an agnostic… but you are not a Christian.

    Christians would say that they “know the mind of God” only to the extent that God wants them to, and then only if they earnestly seek Him.

    Do you see that as some kind of philosophical or theological problem? Do you have a preference for belief in some kind of unknowably remote God that has nothing to do with human life?

  14. Bill Colton says:

    I have heard it argued that man has an imperfect mind, and the only way for man (with an imperfect mind) to conceive of a perfect God is by revelation from God. I think that when we experience heaven in our renewed minds, we will experience sensations (additional colors, tastes, dimensions, etc.) as well as understand some of our limitations (bound by time and sin).

    We talk with a lot of engineers. We have determined that it is okay to know something and okay to not know something. It is good if you know that you don’t know something. However, the guy to watch out for is the guy that doesn’t know that he doesn’t know.

    I think we will realize how much we don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t even know a lot of the questions – and yet we think we understand the mind of the universe creator. Wow…

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