How “User-Friendly” Is God?

May 1996By Gary Mar

Gary Mar, an evangelical Protestant, teaches philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

The Providence of God.  By Paul Helm. InterVarsity. 246 pages. $14.99.

The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God.  By Clark Pinnock et al. InterVarsity. 202 pages. $14.99.

God in the Wasteland.  By David Wells. Eerdmans. 278 pages. $19.99.



If God were to ask, “Who do evangelical Protestant theologians say I am?,” He would get a cacophony of claims. In The Openness of God, Clark Pinnock and his co-authors claim that the classical paradigm of God as a sovereign, immutable Being is undergoing a shift toward the God of Openness, a God who is changed by our prayers and who, in order to respect our free will, limits Himself from knowing the future in absolute detail. This supposedly new theology — known, for example, as Free Will Theism or the Risky View of God — is said to make room for genuine human freedom, understood in a libertarian sense incompatible with divine determination or predestination. Classical theology, these theologians complain, has been held captive by Platonism and neo-Platonism, and so is saddled with static metaphysical concepts incapable of capturing the dynamic God of Scripture. According to the classical doctrine, God exists outside time and cannot undergo any real change. The God of Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas is a Perfect Being characterized by incorporeality, atemporality, and immutability.

Paul Helm in The Providence of God doggedly defends a “no risk” view of God’s providence: that God’s providence includes people’s free will choices. Helm holds a premise in common with the Free Will theologians: “if in fact God has created a universe in which there is risk, then he cannot be omniscient.” Free Will theologians limit God’s omniscience to make room for human freedom; the “no-risk” theologian denies freedom to make room for God’s omniscience. But both theologies falter on the common false premise, that free will and God’s omniscience are incompatible.

Helm pushes the “no-risk” line to the bitter end, and ends up defending a form of Calvinism. Helm, however, does not discuss the doctrine of double predestination, often raised in criticism of Calvinism, which states that God foreordains that the damned will be damned. Also, Helm asks, “Who is to blame for Auschwitz?” His view places the blame “firmly upon shoulders wide and strong enough to bear it, the shoulders of God himself.” But such blame-shifting is not likely to lead to an inspiring vision of God’s sovereignty and holiness.

David Wells in God in the Wasteland continues his critique of modern evangelicalism begun in No Place for Truth (reviewed in the June 1994 NOR). The evangelical mind, according to Wells, has been infiltrated with the mindset of modernity: “The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His…grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common.”

One of the fascinating parts of Wells’s book is the analysis of his survey of students from seven representative evangelical Protestant seminaries. Wells found that seminarians say theology is very important to them. Yet, when it comes to pastoral counseling many seminarians adopt a therapeutic mindset. They affirm the evangelical theological concept of human depravity, but simultaneously affirm “the essential innocence of the self.” Therapeutic in pastoral practice and New Age in their spiritual imaginations, these evangelical seminarians are ill-prepared to undertake a radical critique of modernity, to rescue the theology of God from the wasteland of modernity. In Wells’s perspective, the user-friendly God of Pinnock and company begins to look as if He has been fashioned after the idol of openness found in our modern therapeutic culture.

For all the attempts of Pinnock and company to distinguish their views from Process Theology, both theologies are ultimately based on a speculative metaphysics that appears to have less biblical warrant than the classical metaphysical tradition. Moreover, it is historically inaccurate to claim that the theology of Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas was held hostage by Platonism and neo-Platonism. Classical theology profoundly Christianized the Greek concepts it inherited. The Greek notion of logos became the “Word made flesh” (Jn. 1:1); the Platonic notion of the form of the Good (Republic, VI) which shines and makes the visible world intelligible foreshadows the Johannine themes that “God is light; in Him there is no darkness” (1 Jn. 1:5) and that God is “the true light that enlightens every man” (Jn. 1:9).

The diminished God of Free Will Theism is a consequence of projecting our limited human concepts onto God. The assumption of univocally valid language for both God and man was challenged by Aquinas’s teaching on analogical predication. Furthermore, that God enters into personal relationships need not imply that God changes in His real being or that God is acted upon by His creatures. Classical theologians have distinguished between real and relational change. When we choose to walk against the stream of God’s will, we experience our way hindered by “waters [that] roar and foam,” but when we turn and move with God’s will, we are carried along by “a river whose streams make glad the city of God” (Ps. 46:3,4). God’s will has not changed; only our relation to it has. Similarly when God is experienced as changing, this change can be understood as relational change rather than as God undergoing any real change in Himself or His character.

Certain evangelical thinkers are tempted to accommodate God to modernity. In the climate of accommodation, however, theological thinking has a tendency to grow increasingly distant from an intimate experience of God. Perhaps what evangelicalism needs is not a new theology, but a return to God in repentance and obedience and faith.



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