One of the most disturbing developments in the latter phases of the decline of the neo-evangelical empire, as Carl Henry, Harold Ockenga et al came to be replaced by their baby-boomer successors was the influx at the same time of a Socinian approach to Scripture and a Socinian doctrine of God. By Socinian I mean a rationalist, biblicistic doctrine of God and Scripture that asserted that it was merely following the Scriptures without the encumbrance of churchly reflection and confession, as if no one had ever read Scripture before. By rationalist, I mean that view that asserts the primacy of the human intellect over all other authorities or that the human intellect has intersected with the divine. For the purposes of this discussion it does not matter which version he held. What matters is that he regarded his intellect, in one way or the other, as superior to God’s Word as confessed by the church universal. These two boys, rationalism and biblicism, are brothers. Not all rationalists are biblicists but all biblicists are rationalists, even if they protest to the contrary. For more on this see the chapter in Recovering the Reformed Confession.
Back then the controversy was known as the “Open Theism” debate. I came to it late (as always). I was ill-prepared by my seminary course on the doctrine of God and distracted by pastoral ministry and then by my research into sixteenth-century Reformed theology. As part of that research, however, I had done some work on the Reformed doctrine of God. I saw repeated affirmations of divine immutability.In the Reformation and early Reformed orthodoxy, the lines between the orthodox and the heterodox, on the doctrine of God, seemed quite clear. To that point I thought that whatever differences there were between the Reformed and the evangelicals, we were together on the doctrine of God. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, that line was blurred as Clark Pinnock (1937–2010) had morphed from being a rationalist who defended of divine sovereignty and biblical inerrancy to a rationalist who denied both. He denied the former explicitly and the latter implicitly. According to Open Theism, for humans to be truly human, the future must be genuinely open to God. It is not that God has middle knowledge about what free humans might do or even that God had voluntarily restrained himself from controlling the future. No, according to the Open Theists, the future is truly open to God. He does not know and cannot know or control the future. From the perspective of the ecumenical (universal) faith, God was out of a job. After all, the first article of the Apostles’ Creed is “Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem” (I believe in God the Father almighty or omnipotent). One cannot coherently assert that God is both omnipotent and that the future is genuinely open to God. To assert that God created the heavens and the earth and then lost control of it all is nothing less than paganism. Indeed, by the end of his career, Pinnock was not only a Socinian, but, in what was perhaps his most notorious book, Most Moved Mover, he took a quasi-Mormon view of God, resurrecting one of the most ancient Christian heresies, the Anthropomorphite heresy that God is bodily. Remarkably, the evangelical world remained virtually silent about it.
As a matter of theology, if the future is genuinely open to God—a heresy against the catholic faith if ever there was one—then, as Roger Nicole (1915–2010) argued before the Evangelical Theological Society, the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture is incoherent. By the early 1980s, as Richard Muller showed in 1983, Pinnock and company were advocating a doctrine of God that reduced God to an “incompetent” and “Marcionite” deity. To the best of my knowledge, the Open Theists never responded to Muller’s article. One of the rhetorical pillars on which Open Theism rested, as a corollary to their claim to be merely following the Bible, was their repeated but ill-argued assertion that “classical theism”—notice how the ecumenical faith is implicitly marginalized by the adjective “classical”—rested unknowingly upon the influence of Greek philosophy. Mike Horton demolished that last pillar of the Open Theist temple in 2002.
In the years since, however, traces of the same sort of hermeneutic that infused the Open Theist movement have made their way into the confessional tent. Ronald S. Baines and Richard Barcellos have edited a collection of essays, Confessing the Impassible God, re-asserting the historic Christian view. Sam Renihan has edited a collection of sources, God Without Passions: A Reader. The necessity of these books testifies that something is amiss even among confessionalists. It is being suggested in other places that God is immutable in himself (in se) but he is not immutable with respect to us. This “two-track” approach to the doctrine of God seems to want to affirm orthodoxy and modify it simultaneously. The second impulse seems to be driven by biblicism and perhaps, in some cases, rationalism (in the sense of the intersection of the divine and human intellects). Biblicism, because there is absolutely nothing in historic Reformed theology or in the confessions of the Reformed churches that would move one in such a direction. As a matter of theological method it is quite like that of the Federal Visionists, who assert that there are two kinds of election: the real, unconditional type and a second, parallel, conditional type of election. When the Federal Visionist says “covenant” he begins speaking like a Remonstrant.
It is being proposed to us that there are two effectively two doctrines of God (or two aspects to the one doctrine or two perspectives on the one doctrine): one in which God is immutable (does not change) and impassible (does not suffer) and one in which he does. According to Hebrews 6:18, it is impossible for God to change. That is exactly right. Remember, we are speaking about the God who spoke into nothing and said “Let there be” and there was (Gen 1; John 1:1–3). We are speaking about the God who said “I am that I am.” and “tell them ‘I AM’ has sent me to you” (Ex 3:14). The God of the Bible is the God who is. He does not change. He says so explicitly in Malachi 3:6 (as Muller noted in 1983). “I Yahweh do not change.” When Scripture attributes change to God, even in relation to us, it is to be taken as metaphor or hyperbole as in Genesis 6. God did not literally “repent” of creating humanity. Such repentance, if understood to be literal, would necessarily imply that God did not foresee the consequences of his decree to create. That is not the God of the Bible. The willingness to make this distinction, to recognize when Scripture is speaking figuratively is not only the difference between the literate and the block-headed but between Christians and Socinians (or Open Theists). Scripture attributes to God body parts (e.g., nose, feet, hands) on the assumption that we know that God does not literally have body parts. We are Christians not Mormons or Anthropomorphites. Scripture attributes to God movement (e.g., Gen 17:22) and change in perception (e.g., Gen 1:4). Does not really see things that he had not previously seen? Does God really “get angry” (Ex 32:9–10) as if he were calm one moment and them upon seeing what the Israeltes were doing, become angry)? Really? This is not a trick question. No. Of course not. These are metaphors, analogies, and figures of speech. These are ways of helping us to understand God, to think about him. The irony is that it is those ne0-Socinians who would have us regard God as incompetent, shortsighted, and mutable who have re-made him into a pagan Greek or Roman deity. Read your classical mythology. It is the pagan gods who are surprised by human choices. The God of Scripture is not surprised by human decisions and acts. He is sovereign over them. That is precisely what he said to Pharaoh (Ex 916; Rom 9:16).
The confessional testimony is impressive beginning with the Scots Confession (1560) chapter 7, which describes the divine decree as immutable. Westminster Confession 2.1 affirms that God is “a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty….” Neither the Scots Confession nor the Westminster Divines imagined that there might two tracks by which to consider the divine decree whereby in one of them God becomes immutable or passible or complex. According to the WCF (3.5) God’s decree rests upon his immutability. If God is a little mutable, then the decree is lost. This is clearly confessed in WCF 5.1 where God’s “immutable counsel” is said to “govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least….” God does not become more or less than he is or more or less than he is to us by virtue of interaction (as it were) with us. Our perseverance never becomes contingent upon us. It rests upon the “free and unchangeable love of God the Father” (WCF 17.2). According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, God does not love us more when we are good or less when we are bad. To suggest that he does is to call into question a fundamental doctrine of the holy catholic faith. This is the same doctrine of the Canons of Dort (1.7), the Belgic Confession (art. 1, 16), and the Heidelberg Catechism (26–28).
I will leave you to read the fine volumes by Baines, Barcellos, and Renihan but it does appear that some of our contemporary writers, who present themselves as confessional, have forgotten some Reformed basics. One of these is what I call the “as it were” principle. Calvin called it “accommodation.” Heidelberg 27 says that God upholds and governs all things, “as it were” by his hand.” That concession, “as it were,” signals to us that we are not Anthropomorphites. We know that God does not have literal, bodily hands. It’s a figure of speech.
There has been some resistance to this principle in recent years mainly from advocates of biblicism. The historic Reformed view, however, is that all of God’s revelation is accommodated. That is how it must be in the nature of divine-human relations. The finite is not capable of the infinite (finitum non capax infiniti). According to the Definition of Chalcedon (451 AD), even Jesus’ humanity never becomes divine, not even in the ascension. God the Son incarnate is to be “acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.” When Scripture uses images, metaphors, and other figures of speech to describe God they are meant to be taken as such and not as an opportunity to create two doctrines of God in which he is immutable and impassible and mutable and passible. Such an approach is not only unnecessary it is harmful to Christian doctrine and piety.