Friday, January 30, 2009

Heresy Never Dies (11): Stephen Charnock on open theism

The more familiar that we become with the history of Christian thought, the more we realise that contemporary issues are often replays of older debates.

This has been the case with open theism. Christianity Today may have referred to it, back in 1995, as the "new paradigm" for understanding God, but the reality was that this paradigm had been put forward in the seventeenth century.

I want to show you that Stephen Charnock (1628-1680) understood and sought to refute the open theist paradigm, as espoused by the Socinians, all those centuries ago.

Sacrificing God's exhaustive foreknowledge for the sake of preserving libertarian free-will seems an incredibly high price to pay. This, however, is what the open theists have been prepared to do. Here we reach a major theological fork in the road.

Let's observe how open theist Richard Rice sets this out in his 1989 essay “Divine Foreknowledge and Free-Will Theism” (in Clark Pinnock [ed.], The Grace of God and the Will of Man) explains it as follows:

To avoid the difficulties involved in trying to reconcile creaturely freedom with absolute divine foreknowledge, a number of thinkers propose revisionary interpretations of omniscience. (p. 128)
Furthermore, Clark Pinnock also reached this fork in the road on his pilgrimmage from "Augustine to Arminius":
Finally I had to rethink the divine omniscience and reluctantly ask whether we ought to think of it as an exhaustive foreknowledge of everything that will ever happen, as even most Arminians do.

I found I could not shake off the intuition that such a total omniscience would necessarily mean that everything we will ever choose in the future will have been spelled out in the divine knowledge register, and consequently the belief that we have truly significant choices to make would seem to be mistaken.

I knew the Calvinist argument that exhaustive foreknowledge was tantamount to predestination because it implies the fixity of all things from"eternity past," and I could not shake off its logical force. I feared that, if we view God as timeless and omniscient, we will land back in the camp of theological determinism where these notions naturally belong.

It makes no sense to espouse conditionality and then threaten it by other assumptions that we make. (Clark Pinnock, “From Augustine to Arminius: A Pilgrimage in Theology” in Pinnock [ed.], The Grace of God and the Will of Man, p. 25)
Stephen Charnock's massive and learned seventeenth century work on the existence and attributes of God deals, in passing, with the Socinian denial of foreknowledge.

Incidentally, when dealing with prophecy and foreknowledge Charnock does exactly what later writers (such as Millard Erickson in 2003) do. He asks how Cyrus (Isa. 44:28) and Josiah (1 Kings 13:1-3) can be named so far in advance when their conception and naming are the result of so many (unknown) future free actions. The distance in time between us and the Puritan author does not diminish the fact that, confronted with the same error, the response offered appealed to exactly the same passages of Scripture.

Charnock arrives at the same theological fork in the road faced by Rice and Pinnock and asks:
But what if the foreknowledge of God, and the liberty of the will, cannot be fully reconciled by man? Shall we therefore deny a perfection in God, to support a liberty in ourselves? Shall we rather fasten ignorance upon God, and accuse him of blindness, to maintan our liberty?
How can you avoid the conclusion that by choosing open theism you end up with a diminished God, an inflated and incoherent sense of the human will, and human reason no longer sat at the feet of God's Word listening but standing at the front of the class dictating terms.

As is so often the case, the names may change, and the dates, but the fundamental theological, exegetical and philosophical issues remain the same.

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