A Feature Review of
The Future of Open Theism:
From Antecedents to Opportunities
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
It was the end of my first year of college, and a well-loved professor took the stage at one of our final chapel services. He was selected by the graduating class to be the main speaker for the morning, and it would be his final address to the school. As he finished, a moving talk about the importance of questions in a “childlike faith,” the audience was split between those giving a rousing, standing ovation and others sitting with their arms crossed.
The speaker was John Sanders. The year was 2005. The school was Huntington University (in Huntington Indiana), and it had been publicly announced that Dr. Sanders would be removed from his tenure-track faculty position because of his prominence in the “open theism” movement within evangelical theological circles.
To this day, I deeply regret not taking a course with Dr. Sanders that year.
Since the controversy surrounding open theism in evangelical academia peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s, many books and articles have been published and discussed. Different perspectives and thinkers within the “open and relational theology” stream have clarified their positions, adding specific nuances and delving deeply into both the metaphysics and biblical interpretations related to their views. But, up until now, there has not been an approachable, historical overview of the movement. Richard Rice, a professor of religion at Loma Linda University (in California), and himself an early writer and proponent of open theism, has sought to remedy this with his new publication from InterVarsity Press, The Future of Open Theism.
At the outset, the reader should know that, while Rice considers Open Theism a viable and biblical theological approach, his primary goal in Future is not to provide an apologetic for the movement. Instead, Rice is explicitly looking to provide an historical summary of open theism’s emergence within evangelicalism, the initial controversy and responses to it, the differences of perspective within the movement, and a summary of its major themes. This should actually be considered a strength of the book, as many apologetic and polemic materials have already been published. Rice has given us something different, and to my knowledge, brand-new.
Future is broadly structured in two sections: historical overview and theological themes. In his historical overview, Rice wisely begins with brief summaries of some theological antecedents within evangelical thought that pre-date the movement itself, including thinkers like Arminius, Adam Clarke and Lorenzo McCabe, before moving into a discussion of the major publications from the 1990s and early 2000s and the responses to them.
In the strongest chapter of the book (Early Formulations of Open Theism), Rice provides sharp and clear summaries of watershed publications like the essay collection The Openness of God (1994), Sanders’s The God Who Risks (1998), Boyd’s God of the Possible (2000), and Pinnock’s Most Moved Mover (2001). Especially for those who haven’t read those texts, or those who aren’t familiar with the major strands of open theism in general, Rice’s summaries are lucid, accessible and extremely helpful. For the uninitiated, it’s a wonderful introduction to the movement as a whole, and also nicely articulates what would become the main points of tension and conflict.
Another stand-out chapter (Critics and Conflicts) provides an even-handed summary of the intense pushback from thinkers like Bruce Ware, Douglas Wilson and Norman Geisler, as well as the ensuing rejoinders from Sanders, Boyd and Pinnock. Rice manages to strike an irenic tone throughout, even as an outspoken and early supporter of open theism himself. The result is a helpful clarification of the theological issues at stake, as well as the ways that the intensity of the controversy may have stalled the development of the movement, as so much energy was invested in defending and articulating doctrines of God and specific readings of scripture. Again, especially for the uninitiated, this material gives a welcome overview, and should be appreciated even by readers who strongly disagree with open theology.
Rice concludes the first section of the book with chapters explaining the philosophical implications of open theism and its relation to process theology, as well as a fascinating chapter on how strikingly different perspectives within open theism began to develop after the initial controversy unfolded. These are some of the more philosophically dense sections of the book, particularly the mind-bending material concerning God’s relationship with time itself (temporality), and are a bit less approachable for those without any reading background in the topic.
In the second half (Themes of Open Theism), Rice devotes attention to extended discussions of the intersection of open theism and specific theological topics. The chapters are organized as one might see in a systematic theology text: beginning with the doctrine of God, before moving through human freedom, christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. Rice’s strength throughout is his keen ability to synthesize and summarize, and he makes it quite clear that open theism (as a whole) has devoted significant energy to specific topics, especially the doctrine of God and the authority of the biblical texts. Overall, the second half of his book also demonstrates that open theism has significant theological room to grow (especially in subjects like Christology and eschatology).
Taken as a whole, the first half of Future outshines the second, and I wish more pages were devoted to the wonderful historical overview and the discussion of philosophical implications (which could have used a bit more space). Any reader who is “open” (pun intended) to better understand the place of this movement within evangelical thinking, even one who doesn’t ultimately find its proposals compelling, will benefit greatly from Rice’s discussion here. Hopefully, The Future of Open Theism will also provoke deeper theological reflection (especially in areas like Christology) as well as continued conversation around this important theological movement. Only time will tell.
Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com