November 29, 2004
Martin E. Marty
Weary of sighting controversies over abortion, gay marriage, school prayer, values, morals, blues, and reds, Sightings this week turns its scope on a rare, genuinely theological conflict within the evangelical quarter. Evangelicalism's in-house critics regularly scold fellow-believers for talking a good line about interest in theology, but then showing little actual interest. Witness the thousands of evangelical bookstores whose self-help wares outnumber the few on theology.
A cheering counter-sign is a worthy argument covered, with scrupulous fairness and not a hint of condescension, by a secular-elite journal, The Chronicle of Higher Education (November 26). Burton Bollag looks in and asks: "Can God See the Future? Some evangelical scholars are taking worldly heat for suggesting that divine knowledge has its limits." Unfortunately, there has been a too-ready resort to force by the "God-doesn't-change" school, accompanied by charges of heresy and dismissal of at least one "God-changes" witness. And there have been votes in the Evangelical Theological Society censuring the experimental party.
Bollag publishes key Bible verses championed by the opposite sides. Isaiah 46:9-10 supports the picture of God having scripted and "known" the future, while Exodus 3:11,14 supports the "unscripted future" approach. Exodus speaks of Moses changing God's mind and, in doing so, altering the script. Readers on the sidelines see that both sides base their thought on a Bible that they believe is fully authoritative, and thus should be fighting to a draw. The "change" or "unscripted" camp has more Bible verses on its side. Only if one can picture God creating, redeeming, or making holy vast multitudes while experiencing no effect through these acts, can one have a Creator, Redeemer, or Sanctifier who is script-bound, unchanging. There are more verses like Exodus 3:11,14 to pose against the few that picture God as unchanging.
Bollag shows how philosophical viewpoints color the biblical proposals of both camps. The "change" or "unscripted" camp shows some influence of Alfred North Whitehead. The "changeless," "scripted-future" party draws on Plato, here unnamed by Bollag. Save the word "God" for the perfect, it argues; any change would mean moving from perfection to imperfection. Theologically, Bollag witnesses the influence of Reformed theologian John Calvin, eloquent advocate of God's foreknowledge and pre-destining power and role.
That there are psychological and sociological overtones in the debate which would affect the public, including the non-religious, non-Christian, and non-evangelical world, is clear from some quotations. Southern Baptist Theologian Bruce A. Ware says that "Open Theism," which has become the name of choice for one school, "undermines people's confidence in God." "God," says Ware, "has absolute control and has decided everything that will happen." Even the Holocaust? asks Bollag. Yes.
Under the flak and counterflak, serious probing and exchange of conference papers goes on, and that's a good sign. Odds are strong that the "God as Foreknower and Advance Decider" camp has the votes and the power as of now.
In the end, who will win? God only knows. Or doesn't know—yet.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.