14 July 2008

perspectives on the doctrine of god

Bruce A. Ware, ed. Perspectives on the Doctrine of God: Four Views. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008.

It's time for another round on the doctrine of God, this time given in a broad spectrum of belief running the gamut of major positions.  In this volume four authors are given opportunity to present their case for a specific understanding of God - Classical Calvinist, Modified Calvinist, Classical Free Will Theist, Openness.  And similar to every other multiple views book I have ever heard of, each author takes their turn in response to the others.

Let the theology fly!

Paul Helm: Classical Calvinist Doctrine of God
Although I do not fall into the Calvinist camp, I do try and recognize when this perspective makes a good point or a solid contribution to constructing theology and understanding the biblical text.  I went to a Calvinist seminary and know of a good number of areas in which this perspective is conveyed well.  This essay is not one of them.  Helm writes with a superiority which excludes any other viewpoint than classical calvinism as being invalid.  He deems his perspective "the tradition" and clearly does not display a humility that his understanding might ever be wrong.  He relies heavily upon Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas - choosing these three and claiming that their writings are superior than anyone else throughout church history (he never defends why).  His chapter is supposed to be a presentation of his viewpoint, but he chooses to stop at the halfway point and spend the remainder of his essay attacking the other three positions in the book (a completely odd review of Classical Arminianism is included here), even though he will have the opportunity to respond to them in turn.  Kudos to Roger Olson who also takes him to task on some of these matters.

Bruce A. Ware: A Modified Calvinist Doctrine of God
Admittedly, I have a difficult time reading Ware because of his keynote presentation at the ETS in 2001 where he made sweeping and unfounded claims against the openness position in adding to the over-the-top furor which was spinning around the gathering.  But I will say that this particular essay was a good presentation of the modified calvinist perspective, and it reads as though he actually enjoys theology as an academic exercise, as opposed to the terrible writing of the first chapter.  One of his better sections includes: "The God of the Bible loves and seeks us out with such eagerness and persistence when he himself stands in no need whatever of the objects of his love" (85).  Although I disagree with the context, such a statement puts the position in a favorable light instead of the more defensive positions.  Ware relies heavily on 'relational mutability' and works hard to keep compatibilsim viable as an option.

Roger E. Olson: The Classical Free Will Model of God
The author here comes as a solid church historian and theologian, who has earned much respect in his years of the academy for fairness, honesty and integrity.  He writes well in his presentation of the free will model, reminding the reader: "It is a complicated gift; it is a mixed blessing" (149).  Perhaps the strongest aspect of this chapter is that Olson structures his presentation around the various misunderstandings and misperceptions of Arminianism in general.  One of the more significant lines is his assertion: "For free will theists, God's glory is not might but goodness" (155).  There is, I believe, too much thrown at free will theists about not attributing sovereignty and glory to God - which is simply untrue.  One of the issues which has been lurking in the shadows throughout the book but which comes to the forefront here is that of exhaustive divine foreknowledge.  As a classical free will position, this essay affirms a basic simple foreknowledge.

John Sanders: Divine Providence and the Openness of God
Perhaps the foremost current theologian advancing the openness model is John Sanders.  This is also why he takes much of the heat from the opponents of openness.  I know of many people on both sides of the issue who concede that much of what the openness position claims has been misunderstood, mis-presented, demonized and unfairly attacked.  (And to be fair, they have been rightly questioned and pushed as well.)  But what Sanders does in this essay is present the openness model fairly, honesty and simply.  Many readers will find this chapter alone worth the price of the book because of the way it is written and the manner in which Sanders works through the text.  At the heart of this perspective is this: "God is solely responsible for creating a world with the conditions in which the failure to love was a possibility" (211, emphasis in original).  Thus, there is no guarantee of what will come in the future, although there is assurance in the plan of God moving forward to its completion.  On the issue of exhaustive divine foreknowledge, Sanders does present an omniscient God who knows all that can be known (hence, if the future is not determined it is unknowable - not a fault with God, but a logical conclusion).

Overall, this is a good book - a solid purchase for those who want to see the discussion of the doctrine of God from a bird's eye view or for those who are looking for some introduction to these issues.  It is stated within the book that there will be more growth and fruitful dialogue from within each camp (Calvin / Free Will) than there will be across those lines.  This is true, but sad to be the case.  The dialogue will have to change significantly before this ever happens (and perspectives such as Helm's will certainly diminish our ability to move forward).  One of the biggest problems with the book is that the authors are simply not concerned with understanding the biblical texts from within the mindset or worldview of the biblical context.  As a biblical studies person, I find it quite difficult to reconcile many of these concepts with the perspective of, say, Second Temple Judaism without it coming across as an imposition on Scripture.

Sanders comes closest to achieving this here, and I know that his fuller treatment (The God Who Risks) is intended to be a biblical theology first and a philosophical/historical/systematic theology second.  But this is illustrative of the divide which has plagued the academy on this - the division of biblical studies and systematic theology.  I am grateful for a movement to join them back together and hope that it comes quickly.

My favorite (hands-down) quote is: "In several places Sanders borrowed language of the tradition to which he is not entitled. . ." (Paul Helm, 32).  Really!?!  I had failed to realize that Paul was now the pope of theological linguistics (and what happened to sola Scripture here?).

My second favorite quote is John Sander's suggestion to write a book entitled: God's Lesser Love: The Diminished God of Theological Determinism (181) because that's just awesome!


Pstyle said...

Found you via jesuscreed. Cheers for the review. Perhaps one to add to the reading list.

:mic said...

Thanks for the note! I have been slacking on my blogging for other duties. . .better get to work now that I have company!