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Does God know the future? Books debate theology

In a recent blog, Stanley Fish of The New York Times’ “God Talk” raised this issue: “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?”
Almost in response, Pepperdine University professor Ron Highfield writes: “There is no lack of talk about God today.  But one does not need to listen to it very long to realize that most speakers do not know what they are saying.”
In “Great is the Lord — Theology for the Praise of God” by Highfield and in “Perspectives on the Doctrine of God — Four Views,” edited by Bruce A. Ware, authors focus their own God talk on open theism.
Widely debated in evangelical circles, open theism is often associated with Clark Pinnock’s “The Openness of God” and Gregory Boyd’s “Letters to a Skeptic.” This view takes issue with some Calvinistic descriptions of God by redefining “omniscience” to mean “God knows everything there is to be known,” but the future cannot be known since it does not yet exist. This leaves human freedom intact and, in Highfield’s view, God’s knowledge impoverished.
Highfield sets out to defend the classical doctrine of God against the open theists and others, including process theologians. He claims “answering these questions is a major aim of this book and my case for answering each of them with a resounding ‘no’ will require me to work my way through the entire doctrine of God issue by issue as I seek to show the superiority of the alternative.”
Highfield divides his treatment of God into three parts. First, he takes up the question of how we know about God. Second, he looks at the divine attributes. Of the book’s 13 chapters, nine are located here. He probes deeply into God’s names, freedom, love, knowledge and power.
The third and shortest part takes up the ethics of the doctrine of God, calling for believers to seek, follow and praise him. In each section he cites Scripture, draws on key voices in the Christian past and speaks warmly to the reader about what these conclusions mean for life.
Highfield’s most helpful section comes with his discussion of the unity of God’s attributes. He leads readers to think about the person and character of God and argues powerfully for the caring God of the Christian tradition.
“God’s being (or nature) is not a static thing but a dynamic and living reality,” he writes. “God is action as well as being.” Highfield believes, as we do, that the open theists have missed this point in their caricature of the traditional view of God.
However, at times Highfield misrepresents his opponents. At one point he seems to suggest that the open theists misunderstand suffering. He then ridicules the idea of a world without any suffering at all. That is an unfair argument, and we suspect that Highfield has defeated a straw man.
Additionally, Highfield’s arguments presuppose an individual, autonomous or modernistic self that must make an intellectual, “objective” decision about God’s existence. There is no treatment of a “world view” or “culture” that would shape one’s judgments about God — a culture that one might call “church.”
Despite these shortcomings, Highfield’s rousing, sermon-like treatment of God’s caring and power will speak to the serious Christian reader. His description of our need to escape the trap of “the vicious circle of our fallen existence” in chapter 11 is worth the price of the book. It speaks. It sings. It soars.
Highfield writes a profound book. We were repeatedly struck by the depth of his theological reflection.
“Perspectives on the Doctrine of God — Four Views” enters the same discussion, though it is more directed toward scholars than “Great is the Lord.”
Representatives of the Calvinist, Modified Calvinist, free will and open theism perspectives present their case. The book reads like an academic debate.
While the volume promises to offer perspectives on God, the discussion is restricted to God’s foreknowledge, election and human freedom. The contributors seem to work from practical theological concerns — for instance, how do we understand the Scriptures to account for both the omnipotent God and the presence of evil in the world?
Few “people in the pews” will have the background in the history of theology to appreciate “Perspectives.” However, the book could serve as a helpful follow-up after reading “Great is the Lord.”
Highfield frequently wades into the same deep theological waters in “Great is the Lord,” but he returns to shore with clarity.
“With the exception of prophets, apostles and the incarnate Son of God, we should not look to human experience of God for theological truth,” Highfield writes. “For us, experience is not the origin of theology but its goal.”
That is worth pondering.

CHIP KOOI is professor of theology at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City. HAROLD SHANK is reviews editor for The Christian Chronicle.

Filed under: Reviews Staff Reports

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