Guest blog by T. C. Moore. T. C. is the planting pastor of the New City Covenant Church in Boston, Massachusetts (a church plant of the Evangelical Covenant Church). He is also a part-time student at the Boston campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary — the Center for Urban Ministerial Education (CUME). You can find out more about his family here: About the Moore Family. T. C. blogs at: Theological Graffitti. You can also follow him on Twitter:
He says about himself: “I began following Jesus at 16, shortly before my 17th birthday. Jesus rescued me from self-destruction, planted me in his family, and revealed my purpose to me. Following Jesus is about Love and Allegiance and Mission.”
This is an fascinating refelection on Islam, Open Theism and the theology of T. F Torrance. I don’t usually post on the topic of Open Theism because I’m quite non-committal on that topic, myself. I am a free-will Theist, and am strongly opposed to all forms of theological determinism — so I am sympathetic to Open Theism. I’m not convinced that one should lean too hard on any particular theory about the relationship of God to time — the nature of God and the nature of time are both unknowable. Nevertheless, I’m sure someone could claim that I should be an Open Theist given my commitment to free-will Theism.
Be that as it may (or may not), T. C.’s post is very interesting and well worth reading.
Muslim Open Theists?
People arrive at the conclusion that the future is at least partly ‘open,’ and that God knows it as such, 1 from multiple starting places. Since the 1994 publishing of The Openness of God 2 by five evangelical authors, many have arrived at these conclusions from within the evangelical subculture. This subculture is obviously Protestant, and overwhelmingly Trinitarian. 3 Others arrive at these conclusions through philosophical reflection on the nature of the future and on human agency. Not uncontroversially, others still arrive at these conclusions from contexts wholly removed from evangelical Christianity. (Whether or not the label “Open theists” should be ascribed to these non-Christian theists is still an active debate among evangelical Open theists.) 4
Nevertheless, Michael Lodahl, professor of Theology and World Religions at Point Loma Nazarene University, contributed a chapter to the book Creation Made Free: Open Theology Engaging Science titled “The (Brief) Openness Debate in Islamic Theology.” 5 In this chapter, Lodahl reports that, according to accounts in Islamic history and philosophy, there arose a group of Muslims which rejected the traditional theological determinism/fatalism of Islam for a form of free will theism that included the epistemic ‘openness’ of the future.
In the seventh and eight centuries, a group of Muslims emerged, led ostensibly by a figured named Al-Hasan al-Basri, called the Mu’tazilites (“withdrawers”). These Muslims held two views on which they were unwilling to compromise:
- Tawhid – which Lodahl translates as “divine unity” and compares to the concept in classical theism of divine “simplicity”. This means God is not composed of parts, nor is God “triune” (as in Christianity).
- Justice – God ultimately determines the eternal destiny of persons based on their free actions. Lodahl writes, “Mu’tazilites simply argued that in order for God truly to be just in judgment, the actions for which humans will be either rewarded or punished must be truly their own, freely chosen deeds.” 6
In his book, No god But God, Reza Aslan claims the Mu’tazilites took these principles to their logical end, concluding “God cannot know our actions until they occur.” 7 Therefore, it’s obvious why Lodahl sees these Muslims as proto-Open theists. The only other faith group who affirms this while maintaining the Creator/creation distinction are a group of mostly Christians who we now call “Open theists.” It’s important to note, however, that the Mu’tazilites did not arrive at their conclusions from within a Christian theological framework.
What’s Politics Got to Do with It?
It’s not always immediately apparent to North American, evangelical Christians why or how issues of determinism and the nature of the future have strong political implications. But this was not lost at all on the Middle Eastern Muslim community of the seventh and eighth centuries.
“…the first hereditary dynasty of caliphs in Sunni Islam, the Umayyads, underwrote their claim to authority by appeal to divine determination: if they occupied the seat of power, it could only be because God so decreed. It hardly need be said that this appeal is effective only so long as one actually does occupy that seat of power.” 8
Furthermore, postcolonial, evangelical theologians have noted the connection between theological determinism and political oppression in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade as well as in the genocide of Native Americans. 9
Lodahl goes on to write about how the emergence of Open theism in Islam threatened the powers that be:
“More pointedly, the doctrine of human agency and responsibility implied that political rulers were themselves accountable to God rather than simply happy pawns of sovereign decree. While al-Hasan did not espouse violent revolt against the Umayyads, he and his students did insist that it was every Muslim’s responsibility to hold those rulers accountable to qur’anic law. Not surprisingly, the Umayyad government disapproved of this strain of thought.” 10
Furthermore, the free will convictions of the Mu’tazilites led them to reject all religious coercion. This is an important political implication of Open theism. If persons are morally responsible for their actions before God, then a person must be allowed to either freely obey God or freely disobey God. Forced political obedience to a particular religion is not in keeping with the justice of God, reasoned the Mu’tazilities. One might see in their logic a kind of proto-secular pluralism as well!
Inerrancy, Arianism, and Science
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Mu’tazilite movement was their staunch resistance to the Islamic doctrine of an uncreated Qur’an. This doctrine, they believed, threatened the doctrine of tawhid (divine simplicity or unity). The Mu’tazilites insisted on the Qur’an’s creaturely nature; for the Qur’an to be uncreated was essentially to posit a second god alongside Allah—something the Qur’an itself simply will not allow.
Lodahl draws the eye-opening comparison to the christological debates in the early Christian church. The Mu’tazilites would be analogous to the Arians, who feared that an uncreated Word of God would undermine biblical monotheism. In Islamic history, as in Christian history, the “Arians” lost. Islam eventually came to affirm the uncreated nature of the Qur’an, and Christianity eventually came to affirm the uncreated nature of the Word.
Lodahl hypothesizes that Islam’s acceptance of an uncreated Qur’an actual undermined a good deal of scientific progress it might have made in those centuries. Because of Mu’tazilites’ insistence on human freedom and reason, they sought to interpret the Qur’an according to principles of hermeneutics. “It need not be read as straightforward, unambiguous, literally rendered revelation from a heavenly Book.” 11 The traditionalists wanted to treat the Qur’an as an entirely divine book with no human component.
“This shift away from the ‘rationalism’ of the Mu’tazilites toward a traditionalist reading of divine sovereignty retarded the growth of scientific thought and exploration in Muslim cultures in the centuries that followed.
[The Mu’tazilites] assumed predictability about the world, based in the recognizable goodness of God who creates in reliable and humanly appreciable ways. Their ethical thought thrived on the simple notion that God commands what is good and that this good is not foreign to human sensibilities. The traditionalist position, as we might expect, argued instead that whatever God commands is, by virtue of divine fiat, the good.” 12
In modern, North American evangelicalism there is an similar, on-going debate. When the Bible is taught as “inerrant” (as Fundamentalists insist) its human nature is discounted the same way Islam discounts the human nature of the Qur’an. This has had tremendous impact on the Fundamentalist view of science. The resent debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye (“the science guy”) demonstrates this. 13 Fundamentalist Creationists have more in common with Islam than they do moderate, rationalist Christians.
Uniquely Christian Resources for Open Theism
It’s clear from the example of the Mu’tazilites that there is a path to Open theism through other monotheistic faiths besides Christianity. However, Lodahl highlights the resources Christians have to support Open theism that are unavailable to non-trinitarian theists.
“This Christological grounding [hypostatic union] offers a significant argument for supporting open theism. Revealed to us in Christ is God as One who truly does enter into communion, into unbreakable partnership and union, with the creaturely realm. The essence of that realm is temporal; the passage of time marks deeply the character of our universe. A robust Christology offers solid undergirding for a vision of the God-creation relation in which God truly does honor the profoundly temporal nature of the universe. God is pleased to dwell with, and within, creation as it is and for it is—through and through layered with time’s passage.
…the Mu’tazalities, like all Muslims, did not have ready at hand a doctrine like the Christian doctrine of Christ incarnate upon which to build an argument regarding truly human agency and a truly open future.
…the Christian doctrine of the incarnation of the Logos as true human—a human with growing body, dynamic ind, authentic and responsible agency—contributes a source of support to open theism that was unavailable to our Mu’tazilite counterparts.” 14
This grounding of the openness of God in the hypostatic union and the incarnation of the Logos that Lodahl refers reminds me of a quote by T. F. Torrance:
“The world, then, is made open to God through its intersection in the axis of Creation-Incarnation. Its space-time structures are so organized in relation to God that we who are set within them may think in and through them to their transcendent ground in God Himself. Jesus Christ constitutes the actual centre in space and time where that may be done. But what of the same relationship the other way round, in the openness of God for the world that He has made? Does the intersection of His reality with our this-worldly reality in Jesus Christ mean anything for God? We have noted already that it means that space and time are affirmed as real for God in the actuality of His relations with us, which binds us to space and time, so that neither we nor God can contract out of them. Does this not mean that God has so opened Himself to our world that our this-worldly experiences have import for Him in such as way, for example, that we must think of Him as taking our hurt and pain into Himself? This is what we cannot do from the approach of deistic dualism—why, for example, Schleiermacher could not hold that God is merciful and why Bultmann cannot allow that the love of God is a fact within the cosmos. Thus it would appear that the question as to impassibility of God is the question as to the actuality of the intersection of God’s reality with worldly reality, and as to the depth of its penetration into our creaturely being. If God is merely impassible He has not made room for Himself in our agonied existence, and if He is merely immutable He has neither place nor time for frail evanescent creatures in His unchanging existence. But the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ as sharing our lot is the God who is really free to make Himself poor, that we through His poverty might be made rich, the God invariant in love but not impassible, constant in faithfulness but not immutable.” 15
1. The (at least partial) “openness” of the future is a metaphor for the future’s indeterminate nature. It pictures a space into which human beings have power to change the future’s outcome. And since God’s knowledge is co-terminus with reality, God knows this part of the future as indeterminate—meaning God knows this space as a space of possibilities, not certainties.
2. Clark Pinnock, et al. The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (InterVarsity Press, 1994).
3. Evangelical Christianity is a Protestant group characterized by an emphasis on the Bible, the Cross, evangelism, and cultural engagement. [https://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2012/04/what-distinguishes-evangelical-from-fundamentalist/]
4. Tom Belt and Dwayne Polk began protesting against Greg Boyd’s association of Kenoticism with Open theism on their blog “An Open Orthodoxy.” For Tom and Dwayne, Boyd’s view is heresy according to the Creeds of the ancient church. They later began to distinguish their Creedal form of Open theism from all other forms of Open theism, creating an “orthodox Open theism”. Their posts on Greg Boyd’s views were a 5-part series called “ReKnewing Christology”. [https://anopenorthodoxy.wordpress.com]
5. Thomas Jay Oord, et al. Creation Made Free: Open Theology Engaging Science (Wipf and Stock, 2009).
6. Ibid., p. 56-58.
7. Aslan, No god But God (Random House, 2011) p. 152.
8. Lodahl, p. 54.
9. The “Genetic Relationship” Between Theological Determinism and Political Oppression: Extended Excerpts from Amjad-Ali and Ruiz [https://theologicalgraffiti.com/the-genetic-relationship-between-theological-determinism-and-political-oppression]
10. Lodahl, p. 55.
11. Ibid., p. 57.
12. Ibid., p. 62.
13. Take the Bible More Seriously Than Ken Ham: Interpretation Matters [https://theologicalgraffiti.com/Ham-v-Nye-Debate-Take-the-Bible-More-Seriously-Than-Ham]
14. Lodahl, p. 66-67.
15. T. F. Torrance, Space, Time, and Incarnation (Oxford University Press, 1969), 74-75, emphasis added.