A New Evangelical Vision of God:
Openness and Mormon Thought
A New Evangelical Vision of God: Openness and Mormon Thought
Reviewed by David L. Paulsen and Matthew G. Fisher
It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for
a certainty the Character of God.
In the Didsbury Lectures at the University of Manchester for the year 2000, Clark
H. Pinnock, professor of theology at McMaster Divinity College in Canada, provided
the most recent treatment of a new evangelical vision of God—one that is
centered on the “openness of God.”2 Most Moved Mover is the compilation
of these lectures in which Pinnock offers a compelling portrait of God that challenges
the so-called classical3 or traditional account of God formulated by early Christian
theologians who were heavily influenced by Greek philosophy. Pinnock passionately
denounces the idea that God is impassible, immutable, simple, and timeless. He
vehemently rejects conventional ideas that God is primarily a “punitive
authority,” a “metaphysical immobility,” or an “all-controlling
power” (p. 1). Instead, he offers an “open” view of God
that emphasizes his profound passibility and his genuine interpersonal relationships
with other moral agents. The “open” God enters into authentic give-and-take
relationships with human beings and leaves the future partly undetermined, allowing
human beings to have an active role as agents within the unfolding of his purposes.
Notwithstanding the apparent attractiveness of the open view of God, the model
has not enjoyed widespread acceptance within the evangelical community; in fact,
it has been met by some with stopping of ears and gnashing of teeth. As an unabashed
challenge to the more conventional Christian understanding of God, the openness
model has encountered significant resistance, none of which has discouraged the
architects of the view. Pinnock writes: “Whether the open view will succeed
in becoming widely accepted as a model is far from certain. . . . The odds are
probably against wide acceptance” (p. 24; see p. 185). A “model
can prove fruitful even if it does not entirely succeed” (p. 186).
But he also notes that “even those who complain about openness theism are
revising their views along some of the same lines as the openness view”
Pinnock’s work should warrant the attention of a Latter-day Saint audience
for at least three reasons. First, many aspects of openness theology resonate
with Latter-day Saint understandings of God. Indeed, Pinnock has even been criticized
for endorsing Latter-day Saint points of view.4 For instance, in a review in
Christianity Today, Pinnock’s model is taken to task for suggesting
that God may be an embodied person in time. According to one reviewer, “We are
only a few steps away, it seems, from the assertion that God possesses a body
of sorts, spiritual though it may be.”5 Latter-day Saints may find that careful
contemplation of Pinnock’s theological and philosophical reflections may reinforce
some of their own convictions.
Second, Pinnock has opened the door for Latter-day Saints and openness thinkers
to engage in cooperative work. In a cordial letter to David Paulsen, Pinnock recently
wrote: “Your work has gotten me interested in knowing more about the ‘Mormon/evangelical
dialogue,’ how to measure it and even how to bridge it. Are we (in your
opinion) co-belligerents as it were in the struggle against pagan influences in
classical theism? Can we benefit each other? My sense is that we are closer to
each other than process theists are to either of us. . . . Clearly we have much
in common. I have always hoped with respect to your faith that Mormon thinking
might draw closer to Christian thinking (or ours to yours) and not drift farther
Third, the openness movement is gaining significant attention throughout the contemporary
religious landscape. For instance, the theme for the December 2003 Eastern Regional
Meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers was “The Open View of God
and Its Critics.” Informed Latter-day Saints, especially those involved
in interfaith discussions, will surely want to keep abreast of this exciting new
development in evangelical scholarship.
Since the openness view of God is a reaction or challenge to the traditional or
conventional conception of God, we will briefly lay out the essential features
of the traditional view. We do this to better understand what this movement is
reacting to. For most of Christian history, one notion of God has dominated the
perspective of ChrisÂtian theologians. It is a concept of Deity that emphasizes
God’s sovereignty, majesty, and glory. Richard Rice, an openness thinker,
describes the conventional view as follows:
God’s will is the final explanation for all that happens; God’s glory is the
ultimate purpose that all creation serves. In his infinite power, God brought
the world into existence in order to fulfill his purposes and display his glory.
Since his sovereign will is irresistible, whatever he dictates comes to pass
and every event plays its role in his grand design. Nothing can thwart or hinder
the accomplishment of his purposes. God’s relation to the world is thus one
of mastery and control.
In this perspective God is supreme in goodness as well as in power; he is caring
and benevolent toward his creatures. Yet God is equally glorified and his purposes
are equally well served by the obedience of the righteous, the rebellion of sinners,
the redemption of the saints and the destruction of the wicked.
According to this influential view, God dwells in perfect bliss outside the sphere
of time and space. From his lofty vantage point, he apprehends the whole of created
reality in one timeless perception: past, present and future alike appear before
him. But though he fully knows and cares for the created world, he remains essentially
unaffected by creaturely events and experiences. He is untouched by the disappointment,
sorrow or suffering of his creatures. Just as his sovereign will brooks no opposition,
his serene tranquility knows no interruption.7
In his book Most Moved Mover, Pinnock both critiques the conventional
model of God and sets out the openness alternative. After an introduction that
offers a glimpse into the general shape of the openness model, he divides the
book into four chapters, roughly corresponding to four bases of knowledge: scripture
(“The Scriptural Foundations”), tradition (“Overcoming a Pagan Inheritance”),
reason (“The Metaphysics of Love”), and experience (“The Existential Fit”).
We will describe each of these and assess their relevance to Christian beliefs
in general and to LDS theology in particular.
The Scriptural Foundations
In this chapter Pinnock challenges the reader to consider the proper nature and
character of God by appealing to scripture rather than notions derived from pagan
philosophical theologizing. He also distinguishes the openness model from that
of process theology, which arrives at somewhat similar conclusions by way of adopting
a competing philosophy. “To be sound, theology (the open view of God or
any view) must be true to the biblical witness as primary source” (p. 25).
Pinnock acknowledges that tradition, philosophy, and experience are also important
and have their place within the framework of a legitimate theology, but of greatest
importance is holy scripture—and whether the proposed understanding of God
is consonant with it (p. 24).8 Pinnock finds support for the primacy of scripture
in Karl Barth, who wrote, “Who God is and what it is to be divine is something
we have to learn where God has revealed Godself” (p. 27). This approach
resonates with that of Latter-day Saints, who also insist that acceptable understandings
of God be grounded, first and foremost, in God’s own self-disclosures, the
Bible being one of the most important compilations of these disclosures. But biblical
passages are notoriously susceptible to various, and often conflicting, interpretations.
Thus Latter-day Saints also treasure the light shed upon God in the revelations
of “Godself” contained in their other standard works.
Having set the Bible up as the primary authoritative standard for openness theology,
Pinnock argues that it depicts a God who is loving, receptive, and active in the
world and who desires and participates in a genuine give-and-take relationship
with human agents. “Far from a totally unchanging and all-determining absolute
Being,” Pinnock writes, “the Bible presents God as a personal agent
who creates and acts, wills and plans, loves and values in relation to covenant
partners” (p. 25). Pinnock argues that the open view takes seriously
the scriptural “idea of God taking risks, of God’s will being thwarted,
of God being flexiÂble, of grace being resistible, of God having a temporal
dimension, of God being impacted by the creature, and of God not knowing the entire
future as certain” (p. 64). While admittedly many of these notions
differ significantly from the traditional or conventional understanding of God,
Pinnock makes no apologies since this is the portrait of God he finds depicted
in both the Old and New Testaments.
Latter-day Saints often take issue with conventional Christianity on similar grounds.
While the traditional view describes God as, among other things, absolutely unlimited
in all respects, wholly other, absolutely simple, immaterial, nonspatial, nontemporal,
immutable, and impassible, Latter-day Saints typically affirm that the God of
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is “the living God”9 who created man in
his own image and likeness (Genesis 1:26), who spoke with Moses “face to
face, as a man speaketh unto his friend” (Exodus 33:11). He is also the
loving God who is profoundly “touched with the feeling of our infirmities”
(Hebrews 4:15), and salvifically involved in our individual and collective lives.10
The question of metaphor and anthropomorphism in the discussion about the biblical
portrait of an open God is profoundly important. Pinnock says, “I give particular
weight to narrative and to the language of personal relationships” (p. 20).
We should “not set aside important biblical metaphors just because they
do not fit the traditional system” (p. 19). “God’s revelation
is anthropomorphic through and through. We could not grasp any other kind”
(p. 20). But interpretation requires very careful exegesis (pp. 60–62).
“All language is anthropomorphic and metaphorical, it is all we have to
work with,” but “What does it mean for God to grieve, to interact,
to weep, to cry out, to respond to prayer?” (p. 63).11 Pinnock ventures
a response, “Calvin was wrong to have said that biblical figures that convey
such things are mere accommodations to finite understanding” (p. 27;
see p. 67). The Latter-day Saint tradition similarly gives significant credence
to anthropomorphic language in scripture. When God is described as angry, jealous,
happy, sad, and so forth, the Saints do not believe that it is merely metaphorical
due to our inability to fully comprehend deity. Pinnock writes:
The divine/human relationship is often spoken of in terms of marriage, child rearing
and adoption. None of this would be true of an impersonal entity. God created
humanity in his image, as an analogy of God, and the very basis of speaking of
God in human terms. God wants to be thought of as a person who relates with other
persons, who loves and suffers, responds and plans. (p. 80)
Latter-day Saint readers will find especially interesting Pinnock’s proposal
that openness theologians take seriously the idea that God is embodied. On this
important matter, we quote Pinnock at length:
There is an issue that has not been raised yet in the discussion around the open
view of God. If he is with us in the world, if we are to take biblical metaphors
seriously, is God in some way embodied? Critics will be quick to say that, although
there are expressions of this idea in the Bible, they are not to be taken literally.
But I do not believe that the idea is as foreign to the Bible’s view of
God as we have assumed. In tradition, God is thought to function primarily as
a disembodied spirit but this is scarcely a biblical idea. For example, Israel
is called to hear God’s word and gaze on his glory and beauty. Human beings
are said to be embodied creatures created in the image of God. Is there perhaps
something in God that corresponds with embodiment? Having a body is certainly
not a negative thing because it makes it possible for us to be agents. Perhaps
God’s agency would be easier to envisage if he were in some way corporeal.
Add to that the fact that in the theophanies of the Old Testament God encounters
humans in the form of a man. They indicate that God shares our life in the world
in a most intense and personal manner. For example, look at the following texts.
In Exodus 24:10–11 Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abidu and seventy of the elders
of Israel went up Mount Sinai and beheld God, as they ate and drank. Exodus 33:11
tells us that “the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks
to a friend.” Moses saw “God’s back” but not his face
(Exod. 33:23). When God chose to reveal his glory, Isaiah saw the Lord, high and
lifted up (Is. 6:1). Ezekiel saw “the appearance of the likeness of the
glory of the Lord” (Ezek. 1:28). John saw visions of one seated upon the
throne (Rev. 4:2) and of the Son of Man in his glory (Rev. 1: 12–16). Add
to that the fact that God took on a body in the incarnation and Christ has taken
that body with him into glory. It seems to me that the Bible does not think of
God as formless. Rather, it thinks of him as possessing a form that these divine
appearances reflect. (pp. 33–34)
Latter-day Saints will applaud Pinnock’s bold conclusion: “I do not
feel obliged to assume that God is a purely spiritual being when his self-revelation
does not suggest it. It is true that from a Platonic standpoint, the idea is absurd,
but this is not a biblical standpoint” (p. 34).
In addition to making a biblical case for divine embodiment, Pinnock proposes,
without developing, three arguments for the same conclusion. First, Pinnock opines
that God’s agency would be easier to envisage if he were in some way corporeal
(p. 34). Second, Pinnock suggests that embodiment may be a necessary condition
of personhood. “The only persons we encounter are embodied persons and,
if God is not embodied, it may prove difficult to understand how God is a person.
What kind of actions could a disembodied God perform?” (p. 34; see
pp. 80–81). Finally, Pinnock hypothesizes that corporeality may be
a necessary condition of God’s being passible (p. 81; see p. 81
n. 54). Each of these suggestions is provocative; indeed, each cries out
for further development. Latter-day Saints should be eager to join in the task.
Another point on which Latter-day Saint understanding and openness thought converge
is their view of the Christian Godhead. Both, on the authority of revelation,
reject the conventional view that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost constitute one
metaphysical substance, affirming rather that they are so lovingly interrelated
as to constitute one perfectly united community. This understanding of the Godhead
is known in contemporary Christian discourse as “social Trinitarianism”
or as “the social analogy of the Trinity.”
In line with this model, openness thinkers portray God as “a triune communion
who seeks relationships of love with human beings” (p. 3). Pinnock
describes the relational essence of the Trinity as “three persons in a caring,
sensitive and responsive communion” (p. 84); this, he says, “is
central to the open view of God” (p. 84). Further, “God is the
one who lives in love and wills community with creatures; he is not a supreme
monad that exists in eternal solitude. To speak metaphysically, the gospel alludes
to a relational ontology of persons in communion. The Trinity speaks to us of
relationality and is not tied to substance philosophy” (p. 28). Later
he writes, “God is more than a single loving person . . . he is
a loving community of persons in which each gives and receives love” (p. 83).12
Our first article of faith affirms Latter-day Saint belief in the New Testament
Godhead. It states simply: “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in
His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” Like openness theologians,
Latter-day Saints do not understand the Godhead or trinity to be one metaphysical
substance consisting of three persons. Joseph Smith clearly articulated this point,
declaring in his last public sermon before his death:
I have always and in all congregations when I have preached on the subject of
the Deity, it has been the plurality of Gods. It has been preached by the Elders
for fifteen years.
I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate
and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct
personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and
Yet, uniquely Latter-day Saint scripture repeatedly affirms that God the Father,
Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are “one God.”14 There is no contradiction
here in that the honorific title “God” in Latter-day Saint discourse
has more than one sense. It is used to designate the divine community (as in the
later instances) as well as to designate each individual divine person (as in
Joseph’s use). So it is true that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost constitute
one God (i.e., one perfectly united divine community) and that they constitute
three Gods (i.e., there are three divine persons each referred to as God). There
is no inscrutable mystery here, just a simple difference in the use of the term
God. Elder James E. Talmage clarifies this point in his exposition of the first
article of faith. He writes:
Three personages composing the great presiding council of the universe have revealed
themselves to man: (1) God the Eternal Father; (2) His Son, Jesus Christ; and
(3) the Holy Ghost. That these three are separate individuals, physically distinct
from each other, is demonstrated by the accepted records of divine dealings with
man. On the occasion of the Savior’s baptism, John recognized the sign of
the Holy Ghost; he saw before him in a tabernacle of flesh the Christ, unto whom
he had administered the holy ordinance; and he heard the voice of the Father.
The three personages of the Godhead were present, manifesting themselves each
in a different way, and each distinct from the others. Later the Savior promised
His disciples that the Comforter, who is the Holy Ghost, should be sent unto them
by His Father; here again are the three members of the Godhead separately defined.
Stephen, at the time of his martyrdom, was blessed with the power of heavenly
vision, and he saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God. Joseph Smith, while
calling upon the Lord in fervent prayer, saw the Father and the Son, standing
in the midst of light that shamed the brightness of the sun; and one of these
declared of the other, “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” Each of
the members of the Trinity is called God, together they constitute the Godhead.15
As to the unity of the Godhead, Talmage explains:
This unity is a type of completeness; the mind of any one member of the Trinity
is the mind of the others; seeing as each of them does with the eye of perfection,
they see and understand alike. Under any given conditions each would act in the
same way, guided by the same principles of unerring justice and equity. The one-ness
of the Godhead, to which the scriptures so abundantly testify, implies no mystical
union of substance, nor any unnatural and therefore impossible blending of personality.
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are as distinct in their persons and individualities
as are any three personages in mortality. Yet their unity of purpose and operation
is such as to make their edicts one, and their will the will of God.16
Clearly Latter-day Saint and openness views of the Godhead are very much on the
same page. Our reflections on what each take to be scripture can mutually inform
As a conclusion to this chapter, Pinnock reminds us of his commitment to the primacy
of scripture in shaping our understanding of God. He writes: “Our thinking
needs to be reformed in the light of the self-revelation of God in the gospel
and we must stop attributing to God qualities that undermine God’s own self-disclosure”
(p. 27). No other influence, it might be said, has done more to undermine
the correct concept of God than the confluence of Greek thought and Christian
doctrine, which Pinnock treats in his next chapter.
Overcoming a Pagan Inheritance
Pinnock argues in this chapter that traditional conceptions of God’s attributes
such as absolute immutability, timelessness, and impassibility—now firmly
rooted in Christian tradition—are, in fact, pagan by-products of the Hellenistic
intellectual milieu in which the conventional Christian view of God was shaped.
Pinnock admits that every theology interacts with its environment; it “seeks
to conceptualize and it creates a kind of synthesis” (p. 65). But,
he says, it is our responsibility to consider the environment wherein the conventional
model of God was formulated and discern whether it led to the corruption of the
biblical portrait. The Greek thinkers (e.g., Origen, Augustine) offered the early
Christian theologians a concept of God that could be understood using the best
ideas of their time. According to Pinnock, regardless of their intentions, the
Greek thinkers’ influence exacted a considerable price. This “set
up a tension between Greek and biblical ideals of perfection, requiring theologians
to reconcile the incomparable God of the Bible, ever responding to changing circumstances
and passionately involved in history, with something like the Unmoved Mover of
Aristotle, a God completely sufficient unto himself” (pp. 65–66).
Pinnock also challenges the traditional understanding of omniscience by contending
that although God knows “everything that could exist in [the] future”
(p. 100), he does not possess exhaustive specific foreknowledge. For Pinnock,
“exhaustive foreknowledge would not be possible in a world with real freedom”
(p. 100). Critics of the openness model are quick to contend that any qualification
of the notion of God’s complete knowledge of the future diminishes his power
and worshipability. To the contrary, openness theologians argue, this only makes
God more praiseworthy for his wisdom and resourcefulness in responding to emerging
Latter-day Saints differ among themselves in their understandings of the extent
of God’s foreknowledge. Some, including Presidents Brigham Young and Wilford
Woodruff, have thought that God increases endlessly in knowledge and, hence, presumably,
at every time lacks exhaustive foreknowledge. Brigham Young stated that “the
God I serve is progressing eternally, and so are his children; they will increase
to all eternity, if they are faithful.”17 And, in agreement with Young,
Wilford Woodruff explained: “If there was a point where man in his progression
could not proceed any further, the very idea would throw a gloom over every intelligent
and reflecting mind. God himself is increasing and progressing in knowledge, power,
and dominion, and will do so, worlds without end. It is just so with us. We are
in a probation, which is a school of experience.”18
Others hold to a more traditional view that God’s knowledge, including the
foreknowledge of future free contingencies, is exhaustively complete.19 Joseph
Fielding Smith asserted: “Do we believe that God has all ‘wisdom’? If so, in
that, he is absolute. If there is something he does not know, then he is not
absolute in ‘wisdom,’ and to think such a thing is absurd. . . . It
is not through ignorance and learning hidden truth that [God] progresses, for
if there are truths which he does not know, then these things are greater
than he, and this cannot be.”20 Bruce R. McConkie expressed a similar sentiment:
“There are those who say that God is progressing in knowledge and is learning
new truths. This is false—utterly, totally, and completely. There is not one
sliver of truth in it. . . . God progresses in the sense that his
kingdoms increase and his dominions multiply—not in the sense that he learns
new truths and discovers new laws. God is not a student. He is not a laboratory
technician. He is not postulating new theories on the basis of past experiences.
He has indeed graduated to that state of exaltation that consists of knowing
Despite these differing views within the Latter-day Saint tradition,22 there is
accord on three fundamental points: (1) Man is an agent with power to choose
other than what he, in fact, chooses; (2) Whatever the extent and nature
of God’s foreknowledge, it is not inconsistent with man’s freedom—God’s
knowledge does not causally determine human choices; and (3) God’s
knowledge, like God’s power, is maximally efficacious. No event occurs that
he has not anticipated or has not taken into account in his planning.23
Pinnock writes, “We need to identify the type of divine perfection envisaged
by the biblical witnesses and consider how better to conceptualize certain of
the attributes of God based upon that witness” (p. 65). While there
is little confusion concerning God’s interactivity in our daily devotional
lives, mainline Christian theology, according to Pinnock, has lost somewhat
its biblical focus (p. 65). “A package of divine attributes has been
constructed which leans in the direction of immobility and hyper-transcendence,
particularly because of the influence of the Hellenistic category of unchangeableness”
(p. 65). There can be no doubt that a significant part of a person’s
theology is shaped by his or her environment, by the best ideas and thought of
the time. The very act of theologizing is an attempt to understand and describe
the doctrines revealed by God, and man has always sought the best tools available
to do it. According to Pinnock, the concept of perfection is one area that men
have struggled with and employed many tools to further understanding. “It
is tempting to think of God abstractly as a perfect being and then smuggle in
assumptions of what ‘perfect’ entails” (p. 67). How do
we know if a perfect being suffers or not? Is a perfect being timeless or changeable?
Pinnock suggests that what we are doing when we engage in this type of theologizing
is “seeking to correct the Bible; to derive truth about God not from biblical
metaphors but from our own intuitions of what is ‘fitting’ for God
to be” (p. 67). It is a type of negative theology—one begins
with a concept of perfection and then works backward, ascribing only those attributes
to God that cohere with one’s original concept rather than appealing to
God’s own self-disclosure to better understand his true character and attributes.
“In this way,” according to Pinnock, “God’s nature is
made to conform to our notions of what deity should be like and, if the Bible
does not measure up to this standard in its speech about God, we invoke our own
subjective criteria to correct it” (p. 67).
In his letter to Paulsen, Pinnock asks: “Are we (in your opinion) co-belligerents
as it were in the struggle against pagan influences in classical theism?”
The answer resounds: we certainly ought to be! Latter-day Saints believe that
the fledgling church that Christ had established during his ministry faced serious
challenges after the death of the apostles. With the passing of the apostles,
no one could authoriÂtatively say, “Thus saith the Lord.” At this
point the church, for the first time, was forced to take up fully the burden of
constructing theology—to seek a proper understanding of God’s reality,
to describe divine things intelligibly and rationally, and to articulate the present
meaning of past manifestations and self-disclosures of God.24 This was not a light
responsibility, and many of the early Christian apologists appealed to secular
learning for help. The learning was predominately Greek, and it was Greek learning
that would subsequently have a profound effect on the shape of conventional Christianity.
Today the Hellenistic influence on traditional theism is recognized as too blatant
to deny. It is refreshing to see writers like Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, and
other openness thinkers sounding the call to purge the traditional understanding
of God of the doctrinal corruptions left as a pagan inheritance. In this effort,
we are indeed co-belligerents.
The Metaphysics of Love
In chapter 3, Pinnock champions a theology that is not only traditional and biblical,
as he attempts to illustrate in the previous two chapters, but also coherent and
timely for a contemporary audience. The metaphysics of love, as far as we interpret
it, is an attempt to enter Pinnock’s “theology of love” into
dialogue with modern thought/philosophy. “Did not the Israelites leaving
Egypt take the jewels of Egyptian culture and reshape them into furniture for
the sanctuary? Have not all the great theologians made use of philosophical reflection
to give force to their own convictions?” (p. 113). When it comes to
philosophical reflection, Latter-day Saints often fall victim to mental laziness,
which B. H. Roberts sees as one of the unfortunate vices of men. Roberts stresses
the importance of a spiritually and philosophically sound religion. “It
requires striving—intellectual and spiritual—to comprehend the things
of God—even the revealed things of God. . . . Men seem to think that because
inspiration and revelation are factors in connection with the things of God, therefore
the pain and stress of mental effort are not required.”25 “Religion
must appeal to the understanding as well as to the emotional nature of man. It
must measurably satisfy his rational mind as well as fill his spiritual and ethical
longings—his thirst for righteousness.”26
Resonating with Roberts’s sentiments, Pinnock comments, “It is not
a bad thing to be philosophically engaged. Surely a failure to grapple with intellectual
issues is a weakness from a theological standpoint” (p. 113). One might
wonder why, immediately after denouncing classical theism as rooted in Hellenistic
philosophy, Pinnock actually encourages Christians to make use of philosophical
conceptions relevant in our modern age. In response to this query, Pinnock points
out that “in the ancient context, permanence was preferred to change, while
moderns opt for change over permanence” (p. 116). This is his way of
justifying the open view for today. Hence Pinnock suggests, “What Augustine
did in his day, we have to do in ours. A synthesis does not have to be a bad thing
so long as it does not hinder the proclamation of the gospel” (p. 113).
While Pinnock does not want to focus attention on a particular philosophy as being
ideal for Christian theology, he suggests certain parameters within which a relevant
philosophical system must fit if it is going to help us better understand God
and his attributes. “A tragedy of theology has been that, owing to philosophies
which privilege changelessness, it has been difficult to express the central Christian
truth claim that the Word was made flesh. Theology needs philosophy that can handle
themes like perfection-in-change, incarnation, and pathos. It needs philosophical
thinking which has room for a God who can be affected and not unaffected by relations
to the world” (p. 116).
As Latter-day Saints, we do not rely on philosophical worldviews or systems for
articulating or defending our understanding of God. But we do reflect on revelation
to deepen our understanding of God. Pinnock refers to his own approach as “biblical
philosophy.” For Latter-day Saints, what is revealed must be understood
to embrace the standard works and divine self-disclosures coming to and through
our living prophet. Pinnock seems convinced that close biblical analysis and rational
engagement will result in “openness thinking.” We believe that modern
revelation points in the same direction.
One area in which Pinnock feels revelation as recorded in the scriptures is joined,
and even stimulated, by philosophy arises when the classical “problem of
evil” is broached. He confronts the problem, which has otherwise proven
itself a profound crux within the course of almost every theological roadmap,
with a “logic of love” theodicy. Pinnock sketches this idea out along
- God created for the sake of loving relationships.
- This required giving real freedom to the creature that it not be a robot.
- Freedom, however, entails risk in the event that love is not reciprocated.
- Herein lies the possibility of moral and certain natural evils-those
which appear irredeemably malicious and demonic.
- God does not abandon the world but pledges a victory over the powers of darkness.
In such a theodicy, God does not will evil but wills love and, therefore, freedom
that opens the door to things going right or wrong.
- Though God does not protect us from ourselves, God is there redeeming every
situation, though exactly how, we may not yet always know. (pp. 131–32)
Pinnock acknowledges that God chose to create this world, that he could have chosen
another possible world but he didn’t, that he chose instead to create a
world where humans possessed real freedom, and that real freedom entails risk.27
“Risk was involved in creating this kind of non-divine order because rebellion
and defection are possibilities. Evil was not what God willed, though he did make
it possible by giving freedom for the sake of love” (p. 132). Theists
in the past have gone to great lengths to avoid including the category of risk
in God’s experience, but for Pinnock it is an integral part of a loving
relationship. Acceptance of divine risk makes the job of confronting the problem
of evil easier. Pinnock has the philosophical luxury of saying “things do
not always go the way God wants them to” (p. 132). However, for many
this luxury is counterintuitive or countertraditional. For Pinnock, the failure
to achieve a coherent theodicy is because of the obsession of conventional theists
for divine control and because “the blueprint model of divine providence,
in which each evil serves a higher purpose and every gruesome detail contributes
to the beauty of God’s work, makes the problem of evil insoluble”
(p. 133). He goes on to claim that “belief in a God who ordains and/or
allows every evil to exist (including the burning of children) cannot be sustained”
Pinnock’s theodicy may not be palatable to a mainstream Christian audience,
and it is by no means the only approach to the age-old problem of evil. Through
the insights of Joseph Smith, Latter-day Saints have a tenable way out of the
conceptual incoherency generated by the traditional efforts to explain of the
problem of evil. Revelations to Joseph Smith circumvent the theoretical problem
of evil by denying the troublemaking postulate of absolute creation (creation
ex nihilo) and, consequently, the classical definition of divine omnipotence.
Contrary to conventional Christian thought, Joseph Smith explicitly affirmed that
there are entities and structures which are coeternal with God himself (D&C
93:23, 29). These eternal entities seem to include chaotic matter, intelligences,
and lawlike structures or principles. What are possible instances of such laws
or principles? Lehi makes reference to some such principles in the enlightening
and comforting explanation of evil he provides to his son Jacob as recorded in
2 Nephi 2. “Adam fell that men might be,” Lehi tells Jacob, “and
men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). But to attain this joy,
Lehi explains that
it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, . . .
righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, [nor] holiness
. . . , neither good nor bad, . . . [neither] happiness nor misery. . . . And
[so] to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man, after he had created
our first parents, . . . it must needs be that there was an opposition; even the
forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the
other bitter. Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself.
Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed
by the one or the other. (2 Nephi 2:11, 15–16)
According to Lehi, there are apparently states of affairs that even God, though
in some sense omnipotent, cannot bring about. Man is that he might have joy, but
even God cannot bring joy without moral righteousness, moral righteousness without
moral freedom, moral freedom without an opposition in all things (see 2 Nephi
2:25-26). With moral freedom as an essential variable in the divine equation
for man, two consequences stand out saliently: (1) the inevitability of moral
evil and (2) our need for a redeemer.
If this interpretation of 2 Nephi 2 is correct, then we ought to reject the
conventional definition of omnipotence in favor of an understanding that fits
better with the inspired text. Given that text, how ought we understand divine
omnipotence? B. H. Roberts proposed that God’s omnipotence be understood
as the power to bring about any state of affairs consistent with the natures of
eternal existences.28 So understood, we can adopt an “instrumentalist”
view of evil wherein pain, suffering, and opposition become means of moral and
spiritual development. God is omnipotent, but he cannot prevent evil without preventing
greater goods or ends—soul-making,29 joy eternal (or godlike), life—the
value of which more than offsets the disvalue of whatever evils may flow from
the exercise of moral agency. So it seems that, in openness theology and Latter-day
Saint revelation, we find an element of risk anywhere God relinquishes some of
his power in order to insure real moral freedom.
Pinnock also believes that his “logic of love” theodicy helps us cope
with natural evils, such as a disease or a flood, by rationalizing evils that
emerge independent of human action. Some of these evils, according to his model,
“may arise from the randomness that underlies creativity and be the by-product
of the orderly natural process that sustains life” (p. 134). Still
other natural evils are attributed to “the free will of spiritual beings
who, unlike ourselves, also possess a degree of control over nature. After all,
Scripture speaks of the demonic and spiritual warfare” (p. 134).30
“The open view of God lets one affirm the reality of genuine evil because
it does not see God as the only source of power and does not have to figure out
why, in God’s mysterious providence, horrors come upon us” (p. 133).
Given the commitment of the openness view to what is often called libertarian
freedom, it allows for the possibility of surd evil-that is, evil that ought
not to be.31
After delving into several other areas in which he feels philosophy might lend
a helpful hand, Pinnock closes the chapter by pointing out that Christian theologians
have labored under a heavy burden. “The available philosophical resources
for the early church were not altogether suitable for rendering Christian ideas.
Theology has needed new points of departure and fresh thinking that could better
express the personal reality of God” (p. 150). Additionally, “If
. . . God is understood more biblically and, to moderns, more intelligibly [through
sound philosophy] as a power that is internally related to the world and the ground
of our own worth as persons, Christian theism can become intellectually compelling
again” (pp. 150-51).
The Existential Fit
In the last chapter, Pinnock examines what he calls the “existential fit”
of openness theology. Does it “work” in the experience of those who
embrace it? Pinnock argues that the open view presents for the Christian disciple
a more appealing view of God than does the conventional view. He argues that even
those who do not embrace this view live as though it were true. “One of
the strengths of the open view is that people see the way it makes sense of their
lives and are drawn to it. It is hard to refute on the existential level”
(p. 154). We live as though what we decide makes a difference (p. 178).
According to Pinnock, the open view affirms human freedom, makes prayer relevant,
and encourages steps on the way to sanctification. If the future is determined
or foreknown, why should we even bother to do the right thing? “If we believe
God is a stern, cold lawgiver who has no real interest in us, who is merely a
ruler, lord, a judge and not a father, we will have great difficulty living the
Christian life” (p. 154, quoting Thomas Merton).
One of the great virtues of the open view, according to Pinnock, is that it enjoys
an “as if” asset—”It is safe to live as if the model were
true” (p. 155). Conventional theism, on the other hand, has an “as
if not” problem. Pinnock suggests that one “would be wise to live
as if [conventional theism] were not true, otherwise [one] could have a crisis
of motivation” (p. 155). Pinnock offers some examples.
Suppose that God, as Thomas Aquinas taught, is unchangeable as a stone pillar
and cannot entertain real relationships in his essential nature. Suppose that
in God there are no real relations to creatures—that they may move in relation
to God but God cannot move in relation to them. Since the Christian life is at
the heart a personal relationship with God, it would be best to live as if this
view of immutability were not the case, as I am sure Aquinas himself must have
done in his life. (p. 156)
Pinnock asks the reader to suppose that God were impassible and could not be affected
by what transpires in the world, as conventional theism has always claimed. Clearly
the implications of this view run deep. “Does this mean that God is not
wounded by injustices, as Calvin said, and cannot feel our pain, as Anselm said?”
(p. 156). To view God as impassible is to say that God does not grieve with
us or rejoice with us, and Pinnock insists that this is “existentially intolerable”
(p. 156). Whatever your doctrine is concerning God’s ability to be
affected by his creations, existentially, it seems necessary to live “as
if” the conventional view of divine impassibility were not true. “Only
a suffering God can help” (p. 156), asserts Pinnock.
The Latter-day Saint tradition has a general harmony between our understanding
of God and our devotional lives, and yet our understanding of God has been formed
through divine self-disclosure and has been recorded as revelation, both ancient
and modern. A faith whose doctrine squares neatly with the intuitive devotional
attitudes of its members deserves consideration. Moreover, a faith whose formal
doctrines concerning deity are at odds with the way in which the faithful approach
God and providence deserves possible reconsideration of its fundamental doctrines.
“If our lives make no impact on God and if what you decide makes no difference
to the blueprint of history, why go on?” (p. 154).
Latter-day Saints are certainly not the only Christians who have recognized the
profound need for a harmony between doctrine and devotion. William James—turn-of-the-century
American philosopher—articulates the importance of avoiding the kind of
existential self-contradiction that conventional Christianity leads to.
Take God’s aseity, for example; or his necessariness; his immateriality;
his “simplicity” or superiority to the kind of inner variety and succession
which we find in finite beings, his indivisibility, and lack of the inner distinctions
of being and activity, substance and accident, potentiality and actuality, and
the rest; his repudiation of inclusion in a genus; his actualized infinity; .
. . his self-sufficiency, self-love, and absolute felicity in himself:—candidly
speaking, how do such qualities as these make any definite connection with our
life? And if they severally call for no distinctive adaptations of our conduct,
what vital difference can it possibly make to a man’s religion whether they
be true or false?32
Pinnock sorts out some of the practical aspects of the open view, including petitionary
prayer: “In prayer the practicality of the open view of God shines. In prayer
God treats us as subjects not objects and real dialogue takes place. God could
act alone in ruling the world but wants to work in consultation. It is not his
way unilaterally to decide everything” (p. 171). Again, the root metaphor
that the openness thinkers use to help express their vision of God is that of
a loving father. “He treats us as partners in a two-way conversation and
wants our input—our gratitude, our concurrence, our questioning, even our
protests and our petitions” (pp. 171–72). For Pinnock, God enlists
our input because he wants it, not because he needs it—he invites us as
partners to help steer the course of his divine plan. “God does not stand
at a distance but gets involved, becomes conditioned, responds, relents, intervenes
and acts in time” (p. 172). God allows us to influence him so that
we might be contributors to the flow of events. Pinnock supports this view by
drawing from the New Testament: “You have not because you ask not”
(James 4:2 NRSV). He assures us that the scriptures are full of examples of the
efficacy of petitionary prayer. He cites the example in which God tells Moses
that he is going to destroy Israel, but Moses counters with reasons why he should
not do so (Exodus 32). In that case, God listens to Moses, relents, and does not
follow through on his plan. On the other hand, Manasseh ignores God and is taken
by the Assyrians: “While Manasseh was in distress, he entreated the favor
of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his ancestors.
He prayed to him and God received his entreaty, heard his plea, and restored him
again to Jerusalem and to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord indeed
was God. (2 Chr. 33:12–13)” (p. 173).
Latter-day Saints should have little problem with the idea that God is open to
our petitions and willing to receive our entreaties.33 The Latter-day Saint understanding
of God is one of profound passibility. And while we, with openness thinkers, depart
from the dominant theological Christian tradition by affirming a passible God
who is affected, and often persuaded, by our pleas, we make no apologies since
such a God is consistent with both the scriptural account and the way in which
we experience God in our devotional lives.
God is not a metaphysical iceberg but a dynamic, passible, and personal interactive
agent who enters into genuine give-and-take relationships with human agents. This,
essentially, is the battle cry of the openness movement. From divine embodiment
to profound passibility, it is not hard to see how Pinnock’s open model
of deity resonates with common Latter-day Saint understandings of God. It is not,
of course, a perfect mesh, yet clearly we do have much in common.
Once in a great while a theological treatise surfaces that is devoid of extraneous
apologetics and polemics, a body of work that raises fundamental questions,
proposes compelling responses, and engenders profound thought. We believe Pinnock’s
Most Moved Mover is one such book; it is a book that deserves, even
demands, our attention. It is forcing many to deal with topics like divine embodiment,
temporal eternity, a partially unsettled future, and a God that is far from
the immobility Aristotle described as the Unmoved Mover. As Latter-day Saints,
we encounter God through sacred divine self-disclosure recorded in the scriptures
and also through our personal encounters with him. And many of us discover a
loving Father in Heaven who is, indeed, the Most Moved Mover.
- Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith
(Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 345.
- Two other important books dealing with the openness of God include Clark Pinnock,
Richard Rice, John Sanders, William Hasker, and David Basinger, The Openness of
God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove,
Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1994); and John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology
of Providence (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998); they were recently
reviewed by Paulsen and Fisher in BYU Studies 42/3–4 (2003): 110–23.
- Mainline Christian theology is usually referred to in the literature as classical
theology. Pinnock chooses not to call it by this honorific title, opting instead
for the term conventional theology. This is because he does not consider mainline
thought to be the original biblical or primitive understanding of God. Cf. the
first definition of “classical” in the Oxford English Dictionary:
“Of the first rank or authority; constituting a standard or model.”
- Amazon.com reviewers of Most Moved Mover write: “Would that Mr. Pinnock
would try again without the Book of Mormon this time”; and “With just
a few statements, he shows how his position is most moved toward an almost Mormon
position of a being who is not necessarily a pure spirit being, i.e., possibly
embodied.” See www.amazon.com (accessed 20 January 2004). Jeff Riddle, an
evangelical pastor, writes on his Web site: “If the nascent ideas on divine
corporeality in Most Moved Mover are any indication, it seems that the ‘mature’
vision of God in open theology will be more like that of Mormonism than orthodoxy.”
See www.jpbc.org/writings/br-most_moved_mover.html (accessed 19 January 2004).
- Christopher A. Hall, “Openness Season,” review of Most Moved Mover:
A Theology of God’s Openness, by Clark Pinnock, Christianity Today 47/2
- Clark Pinnock to David Paulsen, 9 August 1999.
- Pinnock et al., Openness of God, 11–12.
- Many have critically challenged the cogency of the biblical case that openness
thinkers offer in behalf of their theology; e.g., Bruce A. Ware, God’s Lesser
Glory: The Diminished God of Open Theism (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2000);
Norman L. Geisler, H. Wayne House, and Max Herrera, The Battle for God: Responding
to the Challenge of Neotheism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2001); John Piper,
Justin Taylor, and Paul K. Helseth, eds., Beyond the Bounds: Open Theism and the
Undermining of Biblical Christianity (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2003)—but
no one can plausibly deny their attempt to base their beliefs on the Bible. For
example, Pinnock points out that John Sanders devotes over one hundred pages of
careful biblical exegesis in behalf of openness theology in his book, The God
Who Risks (p. 25).
- To mention just a few such references: Joshua 3:10; 1 Samuel 17:26; Jeremiah
10:10; Hosea 1:10; Acts 14:15; 1 Thessalonians 1:9.
- See David L. Paulsen, “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and (William) James,”
Journal of Speculative Philosophy 13/2 (1999): 114–46.
- See Daniel C. Peterson, “On the Motif of the Weeping God in Moses 7,”
in Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen, ed. Donald
W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002),
- Actually many Christian thinkers are showing a renewed interest in Trinitarian
thought. The following article and books are a few of the most important recent
texts that outline and affirm social Trinitarianism and its resultant theological
implications. They are Cornelius Plantinga Jr., “Social Trinity and Tritheism,”
in Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement: Philosophical and Theological Essays,
ed. Ronald J. Feenstra and Cornelius Plantinga Jr. (Notre Dame: University of
Notre Dame Press, 1989), 21–47; JÃ¼rgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the
Kingdom of God: The Doctrine of God (London: SCM, 1981); and Leonardo Boff, Trinity
and Society, trans. Paul Burns (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1988). Now, although
these are just a few of the complete expositions on social Trinitarianism in modern
times, it is important to note that invariably every modern scholar of Trinitarian
thought has written anywhere from a brief to lengthy analysis of this theological
- Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 370; see 372. See also Andrew F. Ehat
and Lyndon W. Cook, eds. and comps., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary
Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious
Studies Center, 1980).
- See the Testimony of Three Witnesses at the introduction of the Book of Mormon.
After bearing testimony to the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s account of
the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, they close by giving honor “to the
Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen.”
Various scriptures within the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants also affirm
the unity and oneness of the Godhead. See 2 Nephi 31:21; Alma 11:44; 3 Nephi
11:36; Doctrine and Covenants 20:28; 35:2; 50:43.
- James E. Talmage, Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984),
- Ibid., 37.
- Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 11:286.
- Wilford Woodruff, in Journal of Discourses, 6:120.
- Neal A. Maxwell has suggested that God exists outside of time. “God
lives in an eternal now where the past, present, and future are constantly before
him (see D&C 130:7).” “Care for the Life of the Soul,” Ensign,
May 2003, 70.
- Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie (Salt
Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954), 1:5, 7, emphasis in original.
- Bruce R. McConkie, “The Seven Deadly Heresies,” in 1980 Devotional
Speeches of the Year (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1981), 75.
- The following Latter-day Saints have similarly indicated where they stand
on the respective sides of this divide. Hyrum Smith in April 1844, perhaps indicating
that God is not eternally self-surpassing in terms of intelligence, said: “I
want to put down all false influence. If I thought I should be saved and any in
the congregation be lost, I should not be happy. For this purpose Jesus effected
a resurrection. Our Savior is competent to save all from death and hell. I can
prove it out of the revelation. I would not serve a God that had not all wisdom
and all power.” Hyrum Smith, in History of the Church, 6:300 (6 April 1844).
Both B. H. Roberts and John A. Widtsoe affirmed Brigham Young’s and Wilford
Woodruff’s teachings. “To determine this relationship between God
and man,” Widtsoe explained, “it is necessary to know, as far as the
limited human mind may know, why the Lord is the supreme intelligent Being in
the universe, with the greatest knowledge and the most perfected will, and who,
therefore, possesses infinite power over the forces of the universe. . . .
One thing seems clear, however, that the Lord who is a part of the universe, in
common with all other parts of the universe is subject to eternal universal laws. . . .
Therefore, if the law of progression be accepted, God must have been engaged from
the beginning, and must now be engaged in progressive development, and infinite
as God is, he must have been less powerful in the past than he is today. Nothing
in the universe is static or quiescent.” John A. Widtsoe, A Rational Theology
(Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1965), 24. According to B. H. Roberts, “God’s
immutability should not be so understood as to exclude the idea of advancement
or progress of God. Thus, for example: God’s kingdom and glory may be enlarged,
as more and more redeemed souls are added to his kingdom: as worlds and world-systems
are multiplied and redeemed and enrolled with celestial spheres, so God’s
kingdom is enlarged and his glory increased. So that in this sense there may come
change and progress even for God. Hence we could not say of God’s immutability
as we do of his eternity that it is absolute, since there may come change through
progress even for God: but an absolute immutability would require eternal immobility—which
would reduce God to a condition eternally static, which, from the nature of things,
would bar him from participation in that enlargement of kingdom and increasing
glory that comes from redemption and the progress of men. And is it too bold a
thought, that with this progress, even for the Mightiest, new thoughts, and new
vistas may appear, inviting to new adventures and enterprises that will yield
new experiences, advancement, and enlargement even for the Most High? It ought
to be constantly remembered that terms absolute to man may be relative terms to
God, so far above our thinking is his thinking; and his ways above our ways.”
B. H. Roberts, The Seventy’s Course in Theology (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book,
1994), Fourth Year, 69–70. On the other hand, Robert Millet and Joseph F.
McConkie argue for the same understanding of this attribute as do Bruce R. McConkie
and Joseph Fielding Smith. “Our Father’s development and progression
over an infinitely long period of time has brought him to the point at which he
now presides as God Almighty, He who is omnipotent, omniscient, and, by means
of his Holy Spirit, omnipresent: he has all power, all knowledge, and is, through
the Light of Christ, in and through all things.” Robert L. Millet and Joseph
Fielding McConkie, The Life Beyond (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1986), 148–49.
An attempt to reconcile these differing points of view is provided by Eugene England
in “Perfection and Progression: Two Complementary Ways to Talk about God,”
BYU Studies 29/3 (1989): 31–47.
- See David L. Paulsen, “Omnipotent God; Omnipresence of God; Omniscience
of God,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 3:1030.
- See David L. Paulsen, review of The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries
of Tradition and Reform, by Roger E. Olson, BYU Studies 39/4 (2000): 185–94.
- Roberts, Seventy’s Course in Theology, Fifth Year, iv–v.
- Comprehensive History of the Church, 2:381.
- For a more exhaustive treatment of divine risk, see Sanders, The God Who Risks.
- Roberts, Seventy’s Course in Theology, Fourth Year, 70.
- See John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978).
- Pinnock feels that the idea that some evils originate in the kingdom of Satan
is supported biblically. While he does not offer specific proof texts, he points
out that Jesus did not attribute things like deformity, blindness, leprosy and
fever to the providence of God. Pinnock writes, “We say with Jesus, ‘An
enemy has done this!’ and refuse to blame God for it (Mt. 13:28)”
- For a Latter-day Saint treatment that proposes the existence of pointless
evil, see R. Dennis Potter, “Finitism and the Problem of Evil,” Dialogue
33/4 (2000): 83–95; and David L. Paulsen, “Joseph Smith and the Problem
of Evil,” BYU Studies 39/1 (2000): 53–65.
- William James, The Varieties of Religious Experiences: A Study in Human Nature
(Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2002), 445. Also see Paulsen, “The God of Abraham,
Isaac, and (William) James.”
- See “Thine alms have come up as a memorial before me” (D&C
112:1; cf. Acts 10:4; Jacob 7:22; Mosiah 3:4; 27:14).