Open Theism and the Challenge of Church Tradition

By | August 10, 2021

Of all the objections that have been made against open theism, one of the most serious ones, to my mind, is the challenge of Church tradition. Simply stated, the objection is that open theism is not only too novel, but also contrary to Church tradition, and is therefore not a viewpoint that Christians should even countenance.

The normativity of tradition, or why dismissive replies are inadequate

One assumption of this objection is that tradition places a normative constraint on Christian belief. Some might feel comfortable simply rejecting that assumption. If the Bible teaches open theism, then who cares what the Church Fathers thought? If they held beliefs contrary to the Bible as we interpret it, so what? Just ignore them.

I believe this sort of dismissive response to the objection is a bad one. Tradition has a normative aspect—one ought to show deference to tradition and not disregard it without good reason. This is true of traditions in general, not just Church tradition, and it’s true for epistemological reasons. Thus, there is a presumption in favor of testimony, and an even stronger presumption in favor of expert consensus, when it exists. Unless a person gives us some reason to think they aren’t serious or we have prior reason to think them untrustworthy, like the boy in the fable who repeatedly cried “wolf”, or we have prior reason to think them ill-informed on the topic at hand, the standard presumption is that people are sufficiently honest and competent to deserve the benefit of the doubt. And if lots of people agree on something and if many of those people have the relevant expertise, then this presumption can become a very strong one, one that deserves a lot of deference. The basic reason for this is anti-skepticism. People should be regarded as epistemically innocent until proven guilty because if we start out with the opposite presumption—that is, if we require people to verify their trustworthiness and competence before we are willing to listen to them—then we put them in an impossible bind because anything they might say to burnish establish their credentials would have to be dismissed as just more unverified testimony. Obviously if we applied that standard across the board, then we’d never be able to trust anyone about anything, and human society, which requires a basic foundation of mutual trust, would completely break down. Thus, it will not do to disregard Church tradition simply because one takes the Bible to say otherwise. Indeed, we would have no reason to accept the Bible as God’s word if it hadn’t been handed down to (i.e., traditioned) to us from people we trust. So IF the Church Fathers, who are historically acknowledged experts on Christian thought, are generally opposed to a central claim of open theism, then we open theists need to grapple with that fact. We need to offer reasonable and historically informed answers to questions like: If open theism is true and clearly taught in Scripture, then why isn’t it better represented in the tradition? Why shouldn’t the contrary consensus of the Fathers (assuming such a consensus exists) hold sway in this case? How could so many godly people with deep knowledge of the Scriptures and deep roots in the Apostolic tradition, have gotten it wrong with respect to divine foreknowledge?

Restating the challenge within a strongly normative tradition

Before developing my response, I’d like to up the ante a bit. As I noted in my previous post, I’ve recently switched from Protestantism (PR) to Eastern Orthodoxy (EO). In comparison with PR, EO has a much stronger commitment to the normativity of Church tradition. In particular, the seven ecumenical councils starting with Nicaea 1 in 325 AD and ending with Nicaea 2 in 787 AD, are regarded in EO as authoritative. Moreover, the general attitude of Orthodoxy toward Church tradition is very conservative. As expressed in the famous words of St. Vincent of Lérins (died c. 445 AD), if a belief or practice in the early Church was held “everywhere, always, and by all”, then it is presumptively binding on Christians today. Conversely, beliefs or practices that are not well-represented in Church tradition are generally viewed as “innovative” and, for that very reason, regarded as potentially suspect or at the very least as non-normative theologoumena or “theological opinions”. My interest in this post is to defend open theism from the challenge of Church tradition from within a context like EO that takes the normativity of tradition very seriously. Specifically, I want to show that open theism is a permissible theologoumenon. If my reply is successful in this stricter context, then a similar reply from within a somewhat more relaxed PR context should be at least as defensible.

Now, in one respect open theism stands in very good stead with respect to Church tradition. The early Church was nearly unanimous in affirming both creaturely moral freedom after the Fall and a synergistic view of salvation. It wasn’t until after Augustine’s (354–430 AD) anti-Pelagian crusade that deterministic ideas started to enter the Church, particularly in the West, where Augustine’s influence was immense. Here’s a representative quote from St. John Damascene (c. 676–749 AD): “God Himself has given us the power of doing good. And He made us self-determining [i.e., gave us free will] so that the good might be produced both from Himself and from us [i.e., synergy]. Whenever a choice is made that prefers the good, God is cooperating in the good in such a way that we do things that are, while consistent with our nature, yet above our nature [i.e., God enables us freely to choose the good]” (The Two Wills in Christ, 19).

On the other hand, the early Church also seems to have had a widespread view that God has specific foreknowledge of our free choices, something that open theism denies. For a collection of quotes from the Fathers supporting the idea that God foreknows or foresees future events, see here and here. Here again is a representative one from St. John Damascene: “Further the divine nature has the property of … knowing all things with a simple knowledge and of seeing all things, simply with His divine, all-surveying, immaterial eye, both the things of the present, and the things of the past, and the things of the future, before they come into being.” (An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, book I, ch. XIV) Now, a careful reading of these Fathers in context might well reveal that many of these quotes can be reconciled with open theism. Maybe they aren’t affirming open theism, but perhaps they aren’t exactly denying it either. After all, open theism doesn’t reject the possibility of foreknowledge per se, but only the possibility of God’s foreknowing the outcome of a future contingency before that contingency has been resolved. One non-dismissive way to rebut the challenge of Church tradition is to do a lot of detailed historical work and show (if possible) that the Church Fathers are far from unified in asserting the kind of foreknowledge that open theists reject. But since that would take us far afield and outside of my expertise, for the purposes of argument I’m going to assume that the Church Fathers are unanimous in affirming, explicitly or implicitly, that God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge of all future contingencies. IF that it is correct, then Church tradition is in this respect decidedly inconvenient for open theism.

Of course, if the tradition is far less united on the foreknowledge question than I am assuming it to be—if, for example, open theists could point to half-a-dozen prominent Church Fathers who clearly denied specific foreknowledge of free choices—then open theists would be in “good company” as far as Church tradition goes. Even if the view was still a small “minority report”, the challenge of Church tradition would lose most of its force. But in fact it’s hard to find any clear affirmation of open theism by someone who was also a respected authority in the Church. Calcidius is sometimes floated as a 4th-century example, but very little is known of him other than that he was an influential translator of and commentator on Plato’s Timaeus. Whoever Calcidius was, there’s no reason to think he was regarded as a Church Father. Given, then, the (assumed) consensus among Church Fathers on the foreknowledge issue, it may seem that Church tradition on the whole should push one away from open theism. After all, if the Holy Spirit is indeed guiding the Church into all truth (John 16:13), and if He apparently didn’t guide the Church toward open theism but rather away from it, then perhaps that’s because open theism simply isn’t true.

Responding to the challenge

Obviously Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic open theists can’t take a dismissive line with respect to Church tradition. Church tradition for them has a strongly normative status. Some parts of Church tradition are more normatively binding than others, but one should never depart from the mainstream of Church tradition lightly. For Roman Catholics open theism is an especially tricky matter because the open theistic views of Peter de Rivo (c. 1420–1490 AD) were explicitly condemned by Pope Sixtus IV in 1473. A similar anti-openness stance was later reaffirmed by the First Vatican Council. Because that council is dogmatically binding on Roman Catholics, it’s hard to see how one could be an open theist and remain a Roman Catholic in good standing. (But that hasn’t stopped some Catholics from endorsing open theism nonetheless!) To my knowledge, EO doesn’t have any dogmatically binding pronouncements against open theism.

Even Christians who don’t have a strongly normative view of Church tradition should be uncomfortable with chucking tradition to the side whenever it doesn’t line up with their reading of Scripture. The New Testament didn’t drop out of the heavens directly from God. It was divinely inspired to be sure, but it was also written by people living in a complex historical, political, and cultural context. Who better to understand that context than the Apostolic Fathers and their successors? Hence, their interpretations of Scripture should carry some weight with us. In addition, Jesus explicitly promises that He will build His Church and that “the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). If we suppose that Church tradition is dispensable because a large majority of the early Church quickly drifted off into abject heresy, as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, biblical unitarians, and others seem to think, then aren’t we calling Jesus a liar? Furthermore, the apostles repeatedly admonish their successors to preserve “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), thereby instilling a custodial mindset toward Apostolic teaching and practice that the Church Fathers in turn regularly reaffirmed. In other words, we’re dealing with people who were strongly disposed to conservatively guard the tradition as they received it. Considering all this, I think any suggestion that the early Church simply went off the deep end, especially with respect to matters that are central to the faith, should be met with considerable skepticism. Consequently, if open theists are to face the challenge of Church tradition head-on, then they need to make a principled case that those aspects of the tradition that push against open theism are, at the very least, far from binding. And they need to make that case without throwing out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak.

In reflecting on the normativity of Church tradition, St. Vincent of Lérins’ slogan is a good place to start. The three criteria he mentions are ubiquity (“everywhere”), antiquity (“always”), and universality (“by all”). Each of these is a commonsense rule of thumb for evaluating elements of a tradition. All other things being equal, a view that has greater antiquity is closer to the origins of a tradition and therefore has a better claim to be an authentic expression of that tradition. Likewise, all other things being equal, the more universally and ubiquitously a view is held within a community, the better its claim to authentically express that community’s tradition. Of course other things are not always equal. Additional qualifications and nuance are needed here. In the first place, who does the “all” in St. Vincent’s slogan refer to? All professing Christians? All genuine Christians? All Church bishops? All Church Fathers? You get the idea. It matters what the reference class is. You can make a lot of strange ideas seem to have strong roots in a tradition just by cherry-picking the “right” representatives for that tradition. My sense is that St. Vincent probably meant something like “all Church Fathers” but I’m not certain about that. In the second place, ubiquity, antiquity, and universality come in degrees. Taken without any qualifications, these are very strong criteria—perhaps too strong. Since doctrines and practices develop over time, unless we construe the identity of a “view” rather loosely, it might be hard to find any view that was literally held everywhere, always, and by all within the early Church. In the third place, even collectively, these three criteria are not sufficient for normative status. Suppose that the entire early Church believed confidently in a geocentric cosmos. Would that ipso facto make geocentrism normative for Christians today? I don’t think so. The mere fact that some view happens to be popular in a community—perhaps because it was absorbed uncritically from the prevailing cultural zeitgeist—isn’t enough to render it normative. It’s centrality to the beliefs and practices of the community must also be taken into account. Views concerning Christology, for example, have always been of central importance to Christianity because they directly bear on the Church’s understanding of the gospel and salvation. That’s why so much attention in the early Church, including at least the first 6 ecumenical councils, was devoted to Christological issues. Geocentrism, on the other hand, despite what some important Church leaders may have thought during the Galileo affair, was tangential to Christianity from the get-go and was never an issue in the early Church.

Even though St. Vincent’s criteria aren’t jointly sufficient to establish a traditional belief as normative, there is a case to be made that they are individually necessary, at least, provided we interpret them in a way that accommodates doctrinal development over time. In my thinking the antiquity criterion is the most important of the three. Given that the Church officially began in a localized area (Jerusalem) at a specific time (Pentecost) and then spread outward from there, if the antiquity criterion is appropriately satisfied, then ubiquity and universality will tend to be satisfied as well. For a view to be present “always” and yet develop significantly over time, the view must be present in an implicit and germinal form from the get-go. Subsequent doctrinal developments would then reflect an internal process of growth and refinement of understanding as the Church grapples with the Apostolic deposit (Scripture plus early oral tradition). For example, the doctrines of the deity of Jesus, the Incarnation, and Trinity are all arguably implicit from the outset. The prologue of John’s Gospel, for example, teaches that the eternal Word became incarnate as Jesus Christ (John 1:1a, John 1:14–17), that the Word is distinct from the Father (John 1:1b; John 1:18b), and that the Word is God (John 1:1c) and creator of all things (John 1:3). Now, it’s not immediately clear how to make sense out of all this. How can the Word/Jesus be God incarnate, be distinct from God the Father, and yet there be only one God (Deut. 6:4)? Naturally there are many more Scriptures to be considered that add to and complicate the picture, but the basic ideas of the deity of Jesus, the Incarnation, and the presence of some kind of unity and plurality within the Godhead are all there in John’s prologue. That this was how the early Church understood matters is confirmed in the writings of St. Ignatius of Antioch (died c. 107 AD), who explicitly affirms the deity of Jesus, the Incarnation, and the Father/Son distinction (Letter to the Ephesians 7).

Still, it took a while for the Church Fathers to work out the Christological and Trinitarian implications. As anyone acquainted with the historical development of the doctrine of the Trinity from the 2nd through the 4th centuries would acknowledge, it was a messy and complicated process. Prior to 381 the Church Fathers were not of one mind regarding the Trinity. There were different camps, East and West, using different languages and different terminology, and veering sometimes into modalism and sometimes into subordinationism. Still, gradual progress was made in large part because the Church’s prevailing understanding of salvation as theosis required a Jesus who was both fully God and fully man as the ontological ground for our salvation. After centuries of intense debate culminating in the Nicene Creed and the work of the Cappadocians, the doctrine of the Trinity was finally hammered out and stabilized against the prevailing heresies. In strongly normative traditions like EO, we regard such conciliar pronouncements as authoritative because we believe the Holy Spirit worked through the debate, discussion, and prayerful reflection on the Scriptures to guide the Church toward the truth.

The contrast between the absence of any serious debate over geocentrism and the intense debates over Christological and Trinitarian issues suggests a fifth criterion, that of scrutiny. Some views in Church history have been intensely scrutinized over time by large and broadly representative (or “ecumenical”) groups of Church leaders and then finally either affirmed or anathematized. Commonsensically, views that survive this kind of vetting process have a much stronger claim to be normative than views that never receive much scrutiny.

With this final criterion in place, I think we have all the resources we need to give an adequate defense of open theism against the challenge of Church tradition.

  • While there don’t seem to be any clear supporters of open theism among the Church Fathers, it is not entirely clear that they all would have denied open theism. This is matter of historical research.
  • Even if the Church Fathers would have all denied open theism, the view that God has exhaustive foreknowledge of the outcome of future contingencies is not at all a central Christian belief. It is much more like my hypothetical example of geocentrism than, say, the deity of Jesus, the Incarnation, and the Trinity. So, as with geocentrism, even the hypothetical presence of a uniform consensus against open theism from the get-go would not ipso facto render open theism out of bounds.
  • The non-centrality of open theism is supported by the fact that it was never collectively scrutinized by the early Church. I’ve searched the canons of the seven ecumenical councils for anything having to do with divine foreknowledge, and have found nothing. There seems to be little record of any intense debate or discussion on the distinctive claims of open theism, or on the foreknowledge/future-contingency issue generally, much less a debate that reached “ecumenical” proportions. As far as I can tell, none of open theism’s central claims was ever anathematized until long after the East–West schism, and that only in the Roman West, not in the Eastern Church.

I conclude on the basis of the above bullet points that open theism is a permissible theological opinion for Orthodox Christians and for Protestants who are not otherwise confessionally committed to an anti-openness position (e.g.. Calvinists). Church tradition may not provide much positive support for open theism, but it doesn’t rule it out of bounds either, not even for Christians who have a strongly normative view of the tradition.

Postscript on divine attributes

Despite what I say above, it might be supposed that early Christian understandings of divine attributes like immutability, impassibility, and simplicity not only rule out open theism but are also sufficiently central to Christian teaching to render anti-openness the normative position. This is a large and complex topic that I hope to address more fully in a later post. For now I’ll simply register my opinions that (1) while open theism is opposed by strong versions of these attributes (i.e., absolute immutability, impassibility, and simplicity), there are qualified ways of understanding them that are compatible with open theism. (2) The early Church Fathers were not clearly unanimous in understanding divine attributes in ways that would rule out open theism; indeed, they often don’t provide clear enough definitions of the attributes in question for us to be sure how absolute they take these attributes to be. And (3), to the extent that these ideas were held in ways that rule out open theism, it can be argued that this was due to faulty interpretation of key texts and/or to the external influence of prevailing philosophical assumptions and thus that this was not an authentic, internal development of the Apostolic deposit.

I derive anecdotal support for (1)–(3) from a casual perusal of a great many books on Eastern Orthodox theology owned by the theological library that I work at. Despite its being a Protestant-focused library, our collection still contains a few hundred books on EO. I’ve poured through most of them looking for anything that rules out open theism. Aside from Trinitarian and Christological matters, on which EO writers unsurprisingly have a lot to say, I’ve only found a few books that discuss divine attributes, and the ones that do only do so briefly and superficially, without entering into anything like the deep discussions of classical theism that came to characterize Western theology in figures like Anselm and Aquinas. I did find a few clear affirmations of divine timelessness, immutability, and simplicity, but in each case with very little in the way of careful definition and defense—nothing that suggests that these issues are of central importance to Orthodox theology. Unlike Western Christianity, which developed a strong rationalist streak epitomized by the heavily philosophical theology of Aquinas, the East remained hesitant to apply philosophical categories to God and is in general much more comfortable with apophaticism and mystery. In this regard it’s noteworthy that the first chapter heading of John Damascene’s influential book, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, says “That the Deity is incomprehensible, and that we ought not to pry into and meddle with the things which have not been delivered to us by the holy Prophets, and Apostles, and Evangelists.” That suggests to me that he would be open to hearing a Biblical case for open theism.

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