Is the New News Good News?

Michael S. Horton
Thursday, September 2nd 1999
Sep/Oct 1999

Evangelical theologian Clark Pinnock appears to be the leading spokesperson for a growing trend toward what he and his colleagues call the "openness of God" theology. In this system, "God does not control everything that happens," or, for that matter, know everything that will happen. Rather, "In loving dialogue, God invites us to participate with him to bring the future into being." What is desperately needed, Pinnock and other progressive theologians say, is a theology "that reinforces, rather than makes problematic, our relational experience with God." (1)

Although this criterion–measuring truth according to "its cash-value in experiential terms" (William James)–is most obviously identified with modern theology from Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) to Paul Tillich (1886-1965), the tendency toward what Yale theologian George Lindbeck calls "experiential-expressivism" is thriving in evangelical circles these days. In some ways, given the pietistic orientation of the evangelical movement, this should not be surprising. But what is amazing is the extent to which some of the group's leading thinkers are willing to reject the traditional understanding of God in order to find a theology "that reinforces, rather than makes problematic, our relational experience with God." At least in theory, evangelicals have historically been unwilling to give normative status to human experience, believing instead that experience should be interpreted in light of special revelation. To understand just how far these evangelicals are from historic Protestantism, consider that the Reformation itself was, at least in part, a claim that Christian theology is specifically charged with the task of making problematic our relationship with God!

For the law of God comes to throw us off our high horse, to make God a problem for us rather than one of many "solutions." And, as for the Gospel, it is "foolishness" to us all by nature. One may reasonably suspect any message aiming to reinforce, rather than make "problematic, our relational experience with God." After all, didn't the children of Israel gathered at Mount Sinai fashion the golden calf precisely as an alternative to God's terrifying words? Didn't the fear of God clash with their needed experience?

And yet, doesn't our experience count for something?

As a brief introduction to a difficult debate, this article will be concerned primarily with defining the classical doctrine of God in light of these new criticisms. But first, let us sketch briefly the motivation for this trend.

Why a Different View of God?

Revisions to the classical doctrine of God cannot be traced to just one or two motives; rather they have been encouraged by numerous factors. Some progressive theologians are persuaded chiefly by technical arguments, others by very personal experience, but most advocates of revision have been influenced by both. What many of these critics share in common, however, is an unavoidable interest in the problem of evil-theodicy, as it is technically known.

Nearly everyone is familiar with the conundrum: Either God is all-powerful, but chooses not to abolish suffering and evil, or he is good, but cannot change things. But both cannot be true. God cannot be both sovereign and good simultaneously, given the realities of human existence. That is the dilemma that is at the heart of these discussions. It drives related debates concerning human sinfulness, divine judgment, and a host of other issues. Especially in light of the Holocaust, these challenges cannot be dismissed casually. And yet, it has been stated profoundly that in our day the understanding of God that is captured in the title of Jonathan Edwards' famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," has been inverted to read, "God in the Hands of Angry Sinners."

Another reason one might suggest for this shift is the increasingly abstract notion of "God." We do not have the space here to pursue it sufficiently, but surely a case could be made that much of modern theology has been at least implicitly unitarian. That is, there has been little interest in the Trinity and, more specifically, in the person of Jesus Christ. A major reason for the success of Karl Barth's neo-orthodox theology during this century was its passionate reassertion of Christ's centrality in the doctrine and life of the Church. We could challenge even Barth's approach to this question in a number of ways, but he did at least point up the human-centered and unitarian tendency of liberal theology. People came up with a god who suited the spirit of the "modern man," a god who was safe for modern consumption, and was an ally of secularization rather than its enemy. Today, it seems, we are still living under the same specter.

But what do I mean by the "unitarian" tendency?

Critics of Calvinism are fond of charging it with rationalism. Our Lutheran brethren brand us with this very charge, especially in connection with our doctrine of the Lord's Supper-despite the fact that Calvin himself declared of this matter, "I would rather experience than understand it" (Institutes, 4.17.32). Nevertheless, critics within Calvinism have sometimes charged the official Reformed teaching concerning the Supper with "mysticism," and these criticisms often do betray a certain tinge of rationalism. In the over-ripening of New England Congregationalism, Dutch Arminianism, and English latitudinarianism, the tendency was definitely toward Socinianism-that sixteenth-century heresy that repudiated the doctrines of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, divine sovereignty, original sin and justification, and other doctrines deemed insufficiently rational. Among some later Puritans, "God" had become someone other than the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Trinity was not as prominent as a single, unitary being of blinding glory and power. It was against this deity, wholly unknown and unknowable-perhaps even capricious, that modern theology reacted in favor of humanity.

Although this caricature has no resemblance to the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ for our salvation, nor with the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, both the sickness and the cure seem to have a common ingredient. They both accept a unitary god, abstracted from Christ, as the one with whom they have to deal. Either this unitary deity is "wholly other" than creation (with the emphasis on divine sovereignty) or is wholly identified with it (with the emphasis on human freedom). But in either case, there is little place-especially among Christian philosophers of religion-for talking about the Incarnation and Jesus Christ's role as God's saving revelation and actor in history. Perhaps Christian philosophers (those who seem these days to do most of the heavy lifting on this subject) feel uneasy about bringing Christology into the mix, since this appears presumptuous with their non-Christian colleagues. But, at least from a Christian point of view, if questions such as the problem of evil are to be solved, it is hoped that Christian philosophers will have a better place to stand than mere theism. From a Christian perspective, mere theism has no solution whatsoever to the problem of evil. Here it is true that "God" is the problem, not the answer. Here we have only a god of total transcendence or total immanence, either sovereign or good.

The result of this mistake is that God is regarded either as totally uninvolved and uninterested, or as dependent. Like a large building with only one point of stress, such a unitarian concept of God can easily collapse. To say that God is not dependent on the world is not to say all that needs to be said: God did become flesh. And yet, God the Son became flesh in such a way that his everlasting Godhead never changed, but added a human nature in a personal union. When either conservatives or progressives do theology without paying attention to Christ, the answers are superficial, either-or, and ultimately unsatisfying for everyone.

Challenges to God's Might

How are we to understand these modern and evangelical theological departures from orthodoxy? Perhaps it is useful to view them as challenging the first article of the creed: "I believe in God the Father Almighty." We will consider the rejection of God's fatherhood later; let us first look at the current argument against his power. As mentioned earlier, the theology of the "suffering God" is largely a product of Auschwitz. If God is good, some theologians argue, he would surely have stopped the Holocaust if he could have. Therefore, he simply must not have been able to do so.

This view so identifies God with the world that the Creator and his creation are nearly fused. An extreme version of this position is rooted in the German philosopher G. F. W. Hegel (1770-1831), who identified God with everything that is real and, therefore, rational. According to Hegel, history is God's self-realization, as Spirit progressively transforms everything by radical swings from thesis to antithesis, resulting in a higher synthesis. As appropriated by theology, this meant that the cross is symbolic of the death of everything (thesis) that is required for the resurrection of everything (antithesis), resulting in a new stage of history (i.e., God's) self-realization. For Hegel, this process was marked by a cheerful optimism, but war and injustice on a massive scale challenged the so-called progress. In the 1960s, the "Death of God" theologians argued this so forcefully that Time magazine carried the cover story, "Is God Dead?"

Others have been more restrained: God is not dead, but he is suffering. This view has become quite popular even in evangelical circles. In a 1997 issue of Christianity Today, for instance, there were two articles on this trend-both of them arguing for the suffering of God, and therefore against the classical Christian view! One article even asserted that the "error" of the classical view can be traced to the Chalcedonian Creed (A.D. 451). (2) Appealing to the biblical references in which God is described as "afflicted," "repentant," "pleased," and so forth, proponents of God's suffering do not accept the traditional interpretation that these are anthropomorphisms-that is, figures of speech in which God describes himself in human terms so that we can better understand his character.

Although hardly an orthodox theologian himself, Hans Kung offers a sound critique of this position, as it is "inspired more by Hegel than by the Bible." No one has attempted to grapple more with the Holocaust-and suffering in general-than Kung. Yet he correctly observes that we cannot do away with the "godness" of God in order to find an easy explanation of suffering. He writes:

A look at scripture may sober up such speculative boldness…. Granted, in anthropomorphic language the Hebrew Bible sometimes attributes the whole range of human feelings and attitudes to God…. But nowhere is the difference between God and human beings done away with, nor is human suffering and pain simply declared to be the suffering and pain of God…. Nowhere does God's Godliness become ungodliness, his faithfulness unfaithfulness, his reliability unreliability, his divine mercy human pitifulness. For the Hebrew Bible, though human beings fail, God does not fail; when human beings die, God does not die also. For "I am God and not man, the holy one in your midst," states Hosea 11:9 against any humanization of God, although at this very point as elsewhere there is anthropomorphic talk of God's "compassion" on his people. (3)

Concerning God's unchanging character, the New Testament tells the same story. Jesus cries out to God, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" for the suffering God-Man is not the suffering of the divine nature itself. Kung encourages us to, "emphatically protest against a masochistic, tolerant understanding of God according to which a weak God has to torture himself to resurrection by suffering and death if he is not to suffer eternally." (4)

If God is affected by events outside of himself, he is dependent on these factors for his pleasure or pain. He is, therefore, a victim of evil, along with the rest of us. It may help some people to learn that God feels their pain, but if it is at the expense of his invulnerability to change, frustration, despair, and suffering, God is no more helpful in a crisis than is the therapist or sympathetic neighbor.

If one is trapped inside the elevator of a burning building, a fireman outside the elevator who can break down the door is preferable to a fellow victim who is also trapped but understands the problem. Being omniscient, God knows our pain and hears our cries. And in Christ, God did experience our human suffering inasmuch as he was the God-Man. But as God, he was able to rescue us because he possessed the very attributes that we do not possess. Because he is in himself beyond suffering, he cannot be affected or hindered by anything that happens in the world. When he does act, it is out of strength, abundance, self-sufficiency, and freedom, not out of weakness, lack, dependence, or constraint. Although this may not fully resolve our curiosities about the problem of evil and suffering, it is good news to those who are actually suffering. Our Father is strong to save.

Challenges to God's Fatherhood

But the second way that "God the Father Almighty" has come under attack recently concerns whether we should even think of God as a father. This position has its source in Karl Marx's critique of power and hierarchy which has been influential in both liberationist and feminist theologies. Marx said that the criticism of religion as "the opiate of the people" was the point of departure for an unrelenting criticism of the status quo in every field. According to theologian Sallie McFague, for instance, Jewish-Christian patriarchalism which pervaded the early church, was the product of a monarchical conception of God.

A male king rules over a hierarchy of lesser powers, all of whom reign over women and other marginalized members of society. Thus, the theory goes, theology justified and produced hierarchical and patriarchal cultures. The picture represented in the "Hallelujah Chorus" of Handel's Messiah ("King of kings and Lord of lords," "for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth") is "a very dangerous one," writes McFague. (5) (Of course, these attributions of monarchical sovereignty do not originate with Handel, but with the Scriptures themselves.)

Closely related to the notion of a "suffering God," the alternative picture suggested by feminist theologians is that of a vulnerable deity who, unlike the "masculine" God of power and stoic indifference to feeling, is a fellow traveler. Process theology, even when it does not explicitly draw on feminist themes, is another popular expression of these basic ideas. God, proponents suggest, is not the king over all, but a lover who invites us to become co-creators, co-sufferers, and co-redeemers.

First, we must say that this is a complicated critique and deserves far more attention than we can give it here. It is true that the Church has sometimes strayed beyond the biblical story to borrow from Greek philosophy in its defense of a God who does not suffer. To be sure, the Church for centuries abused its authority with incredibly blatant exercises of tyranny and injustice. In many places, it still does today. American Protestantism and Latin American Catholicism remind us of the dangers of a church that loses its prophetic role by propping up the status quo in politics and society. But this critique engages in what logicians call "the genetic fallacy." That is, while the historical realities cannot and should never be denied, it is wrong to blame Christian theology per se unless there is a clear causal link. Many of the examples cited (forced conversions of pagans, the Crusades, the Inquisition) actually took place in a setting in which theology revolved more around the veneration of Mary than around "God the Father Almighty." Nevertheless, this did not produce a feminist hierarchy. Similarly, in many Catholic countries today, severe oppression of women continues to take place in cultures deeply committed to the cult of the Virgin.

Furthermore, Jesus was deeply critical of the social injustices of his day with respect to tyranny and oppression, breaking taboos concerning women, foreigners, and social outcasts. And yet the Scriptures show us that God was his father, not his mother (or "parent"), and Jesus was God's Son, not a genderless child, and the sovereign God of the prophets and apostles was none other than the one to whom even Jesus acknowledged subordination in his earthly ministry. No one has ever claimed "God the Father Almighty" as forcefully-and evangelically-as Jesus Christ.

The critique of God as both father and almighty has deep difficulties. Beyond the obvious biblical challenges, it is flawed even in its analysis of the problem. It assumes that patriarchy is inherently oppressive, never minding the many contradictory examples one can find in history. After all, since most societies throughout the ages have been patriarchal, how could one single this factor out as definitive? Christians have historically explained fallen societies in terms of sinful human hearts, not in terms of good people imprisoned in evil institutions. While certainly not minimizing the point that institutions as well as individuals are sinful, Scripture nowhere identifies patriarchy as inherently oppressive, despite the fact that many patriarchies have been so.

The divine patriarchy does not sanction unjust and oppressive systems of power; rather, it is precisely their judge. Who can ignore the indignation of God against the powerful who oppress the weak in society, including the poor, the alien, and women? As one example, we learn that women in Israel's civil legislation were given rights that did not belong to women in antiquity. It was a good Father who created, preserves, and saves, a Father who "is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6), who tenderly cares for his children, and uses his power to reconcile the wicked to himself despite their sin and resistance.

Instead of projecting our modern experience of patriarchal societies and impoverished fatherhood on religion, we must allow the biblical story to reorient our very notions of fatherhood and power. We can empathize with women and men who have been victims of inadequate and even destructive father images. Given our culture, it is no wonder so many women identify patriarchy with oppression, violence, and injustice. And we can never simply dismiss our personal experience from the process of interpretation.

But the sociological "is" does not reflect what of necessity has to be. Despite their enduring wounds, those whose fathers were absent, judgmental, or cruel can have their concept of "father" transformed by the story of an "Eternal Father, Strong to Save." The more we get to know God's redemptive actions in history, the greater our chances of overcoming the prison of our own narrow experience. Instead of abandoning these models, we must allow God's version to redeem our experience of fatherhood and sovereignty. To the weak and oppressed, a sovereign liberator comes as good news.

Critics are correct to point out that patriarchal religious views can create oppressive cultures. When we project our earthly father-images onto God, we set them in concrete. If this is what God is like, we reason, then who is to question? So if we happen to live in a culture in which men grow up thinking of women as objects or tools for their own ends, they will likely erect a chauvinistic deity to lend credibility to the projection. But this is sheer idolatry. Far from sanctioning such destructive patriarchy, God's self-revelation judges it as nothing else could. If, for instance, one were simply to jettison the male images and substitute female ones, this would hardly be capable of solving the problem of violence against women. Only a Good Father can judge a bad one and show us what real fatherhood is all about. So both chauvinists who "project" their distorted masculinity onto God and feminists who try to meet this challenge by "projecting" their own unscriptural images end up engaging in idolatry. It is not our images, but God's Word that must shape our faith and practice.

One reason why this affirmation can actually heal rather than reinforce malevolent parental relationships is that God's fatherhood is the source of all fatherhoods. At first, this sounds somewhat strange because we are used to working our way analogically from that which we know best (human relationships) to that which is more remote (divine relationships). But God built his inter-trinitarian paradigm into our human psyche. The Son is eternally begotten by the Father and from both proceeds the Holy Spirit. There was not a time when the Son was not, and therefore, no time when the Father was not a father. Relationship is built into the very fabric of the Trinity. Thus, while in practice we cannot help but be influenced in our views of God's fatherhood by our earthly experiences, the Good Father can heal our broken images. He can do this because we learn that good fatherhood is not from good human fathers, but from God himself. After all, he invented the idea.

But we must remember that the knowledge of "God Almighty" is hardly comforting by itself, especially when we know that deep down we are at odds with God, and he is our Judge. God is almighty in wrath, in justice, and in blinding glory. But when we add that intimate title Father to the equation, and by our incorporation into Christ can call him our Father, the unlimited power and indestructible will of God become good news to us: He is strong to save.

This is an important warning for some who seem to regard God's sovereignty as the center of the Christian message. As important as it is, this emphasis can only lead to fear, doubt, and despair unless it is read through the lens of God's saving will made certain in Christ through the promises of the Gospel. It is the Gospel that makes the affirmation of God's omnipotence welcome rather than fearful news.

We must eliminate both the idol of a loving but weak god, and the idol of a strong but graceless god. For neither is great enough to capture the hearts and minds of our disenchanted age, especially in the face of evil, oppression, violence, and death. More importantly, neither vision represents the God of the Bible. The grand vision is found in the orthodox conception of the Trinity, where Jesus the Son reveals to us "God the Father Almighty." (6)

Recovering the Incarnation

The contemporary rejection of the incommunicable attributes of God (his self-sufficiency, immutability, omniscience, omnipotence, etc.) is not a new development in theology-just a new development in evangelical theology. Blurring, or even erasing, the line between Creator and creature has been a major trend within contemporary theology, especially in the form usually known as "process theology." Panentheism, (7) the view that all of creation dwells in God, is now accepted by a fair number of evangelical theologians as a live option for the future. Much of this trend, I am convinced, is due to a weak Christology which plagues most theological proposals in the modern (and postmodern) age. Lacking a strong doctrine of the Incarnation, the active and passive obedience of the Suffering Servant, and his triumphant conquest as both God and man, a monistic rather than trinitarian deity has to carry the weight of Immanuel: God With Us. It all serves to remind us that there is no saving revelation of God apart from Christ. (8)

But at the end of the day, isn't this "openness" of God-a theology "that reinforces … our relational experience of God"-precisely the theology which Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud regarded as the substance of religion in general; namely, projection of human ambitions, felt needs, and wish-fulfillment? In other words, doesn't this development simply prove that Feuerbach was right when he said that theology is really anthropology; that religion is really about humanity rather than God after all? There is no doubt that classical formulations need to be evaluated and reevaluated in the light of the Scriptures. It may be that there are some classic expressions which unnecessarily prejudice critics against the classical doctrine simply because of their captivity to alien categories and terminologies. All of these concerns are worth reexamining.

But if God is not the unchanging, impassible (i.e., non-suffering), all-knowing, all-powerful, self-sufficient, and all-wise Yahweh of Scripture, he is not the Savior either. Anselm was right: Jesus is fully human because only a man should pay the debt to restore justice and peace; he is fully divine because only God could pay such an infinite debt and conquer death itself. But if God is not God, then what would it mean to affirm the deity of Christ? Ultimately, then, these are not theoretical, but practical, questions. If God is already identified with the world in any other way than the Incarnation, what does the suffering of Jesus actually mean, much less accomplish? And if such suffering is purely relational and therapeutic rather than judicial and propitiatory, what does it mean to speak of "salvation"?

When Paul stood on Mars Hill, he took on both Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, the former basically deistic (pushing God out of sight so they could live irresponsibly), while the latter were basically pantheistic (identifying God with the creation). Ironically, given the typical criticism of the classical doctrine of God as too determined by Stoic elements, it is in this context-against Stoicism that the Apostle to the Gentiles proclaims "Jesus and the resurrection" on the foundation that…

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. (Acts 17:24-26)

In other words, despite its idea of a static, unfeeling, unchanging deity, the Stoic view had collapsed Creator and creation in a manner quite similar to the contemporary trends. It is the Christian doctrine of God, as maintained within orthodoxy, that invalidates both hyper-immanence and hyper-transcendence. God is not needy; we are. God is not dependent on us, but we are helpless without him. God determines the future and, therefore, we can be confident that his suffering for us in Jesus Christ will yield the promised fruit: everlasting peace in a world where suffering is no more and God will be all in all.

1 [ Back ] Clark Pinnock, et. al., The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 7-8.
2 [ Back ] See the entire issue of Christianity Today, February 3, 1997.
3 [ Back ] Hans Kung, Credo: The Apostles' Creed Explained for Today (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 86.
4 [ Back ] Ibid., 87.
5 [ Back ] Sallie McFague, Models of God (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 64.
6 [ Back ] For further discussion of the Father and the Trinity, see my We Believe: Recovering the Essentials of the Apostles' Creed (Nashville: Word, 1998), chapters 2-3.
7 [ Back ] "Panentheism" differs from "pantheism." Panentheism is that view that God is dependent on the world for his fulfillment; creation is in him, but he is still larger than it. Pantheism, on the other hand, identifies God with all, and all with God.
8 [ Back ] For an excellent, more detailed discussion of the place of the incarnation in responding to these challenges, see Richard Muller, "Incarnation, Immutability, and the Case for Classical Theism," Westminster Theological Journal 45 (1983), 22-40.

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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Thursday, September 2nd 1999

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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