Mormon Thought vs. Open Theism

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[ed. note: The following was written by George Cobabe and posted here with his permission.]

I surely accept the idea that the general statement about Open Theism is one that we would all want to accept and is consistent with Mormon Thought. Clark Pinnock describes open theism as a situation where there”… is genuine interaction between God and his creations, where God enters into reciprocal give-and-take relations with this creations, and where God responds to what his creations do.” It is an attempt to “…bring out the personal nature of God and [the participants] want, in their own distinctive ways, to lift up the conviction that God is “open” and that he exists in a significant relationship with the creature.”

Although we may have trouble with the concept envisioned by the use of the word “creature” we nevertheless as LDS would agree with this basic desire and approach. In the dialogue between Pinnock and David Paulsen they attempted to find common points of “contact” and to learn from each other. I find the approach refreshing.

If anyone would like to read along the article can be found in “BYU Studies. Vol 48,No 2, 2009, pgs 50-110” The longer version of the exchange is found in in Mormonism in Dialogue with Contemporary Christian Theologies.

If we went no further than the basic idea that we have a relationship with God we would all be open theists. But, as so often is the case, the devil is in the details. Paulsen suggested that “Perhaps the best way to see how our respective approaches to scripture, reason, and experience actually operate is to consider several doctrinal points case by case.” To which Pinnock responded, “To that end, then, I wish to put on the table several specific items that will foster conversation between open and LDS theists.” Note that the attempt is to find points of comparative agreement so as to foster communication. The goal was not to find points of contention. Note also that Pinnock clearly notes that “open theists” and “LDS theists” are two different groups – with, as will be noted, real differences. Paulsen also implied this with the comment about “…our respective approaches…”

So let us consider some of the points made by these two esteemed scholars.

1. Divine Embodiment

Pinnock says this is not something that Open theists has been comfortable with. He admits to the possibility of God’s having, or at least assuming in the case of Jesus, embodied ways. But the nature of God to open theists is of a spiritual nature, not a God with a body.

Paulsen obviously believes that God has a body and quotes D&C 130:22-23

2. Plurality of Gods and Spiritual Warfare

Pinnock does not really seem to understand the question from an LDS point of view. He admits to a plurality of gods (lower case) but does not resolve the question of fallen gods or some other nature. He expresses no opinion on spiritual warfare.

Paulsen speaks of eternal beings with free will and therefore there is sometimes opposition to divine will, and therefore “warfare.”

3. Theosis and Deification

Pinnock accepts the idea of theosis with the idea that we can share the glory of God. He views this result as not changing the concept of man as creatures (i.e., not of the same nature as God). He rejects the idea of deification and man becoming gods (and surely not Gods), even though he is aware of early Christians speaking of our destiny in these terms.

Paulsen says that there is no “…ontological barrier preventing mankind from becoming all that God is and enjoying the same kind of life that God lives…” He is puzzled by LDS scholars that make claims to the contrary. (Is he speaking of Ostler and others who agree with him?) Whereas open theology recognizes a significant gap between God and his creatures, LDS thought recognizes no such gap.

4. The Omniscience of God

This is an area of agreement between the two. Both recognize that there are in both communities, people who argue both sides of the question. Both those that believe in foreknowledge and those that do not. Both give respect to both views – which is refreshing.

5. God, Gender, and the Divine Feminine

Pinnock says that Open Theists deny that God has a gender. And of course do not accept the idea of a Divine Feminine. He asks if the LDS view on this could have come from some pagan Semitic ideas.

Paulsen, naturally, presents the idea of God being Male and the absolute real existence of a “Mrs. God.”

6. The Social Trinity

Pinnock says that both Open Theists and LDS hold to a social trinity. But, he then describes something a bit different from what I understand. In fact he says, “For Latter-day Saints, the Trinity is a little differently understood. It consists of three individual personal and separate beings… They are distinct persons.” This seems to suggest that Open Theists believe in something close to a traditional understanding of Trinity, yet they say no. As with most non-LDS descriptions of God, especially as they stay close to the creeds, it is difficult to understand exactly what they do mean. He reaffirms that he is speaking of monotheism, whereas Paulsen is not.

Paulsen also says that Open Theists reject the traditional view of the Godhead being of one metaphysical substance, looking more to a oneness of purpose and understanding. But then is corrected in further comments by Pinnock. He then speaks of our belief in three beings in substance, but one in purpose, etc. A big difference here.

7. God and the Creation

Pinnock points out that Open Theists believe in “creatio ex nihilo” although he prefers the term “creatio ex amore”

Paulsen points out that LDS do not believe in such a concept.

8. The Omnipotence of God

Pinnock believes that any limitations on God’s power are voluntary self limiting.

Paulsen believes that God is inherently limited. LDS believe that this limitation is a “…metaphysical reality, while openness thinkers claim that God voluntarily limits himself.”

9. Theodicy: The Problem of Evil

Pinnock does not have a good answer for the origin of evil. He speaks of it existing because God voluntarily limits His power over evil to maintain mankind’s freedom. He acknowledges that Open Theology does not have a good answer for this question.

Paulsen points out that creation ex nihilo makes God the source of evil and that we look at the question quite differently. He points out that the eternal nature of all God’s children makes evil eternally co-existent with creation and with God.

In the longer book version I recall that there were more points of dialogue, but these serve to make the point I want to make. If you claim to be an Open Theist then you accept the perception of other knowledgeable people, at least those that have an inkling of what Open Theists believe, that you will be saddled with the perception that you believe the above points as they do. And I surely hope that you do not. For you cannot agree with their positions on these questions and truly agree with the LDS positions at the same time.

If one wants to be thought of as an “open theist” and be a mormon at the same time it would be important, at least in my mind, to point out that you agree only in part and that, at best, you are a “modified or partial Open Theist.”

Hence my concerns.

Comments are welcome and encouraged. I believe that I represented both points of view accurately, but this is such a short presentation it cannot be a complete view of each position.

13 thoughts on “Mormon Thought vs. Open Theism

  1. Eric Nielson

    Thanks for passing this along. I will have to read the longer version. At first glance I think I would prefer this to How Wide the Divide. I think I like Paulsen

  2. Pingback: Mormonism and Open Theism : Mormon Metaphysics

  3. onika

    According to this scripture God is one being who played different roles. He is called the Father because by his power he was conceived in the flesh, and he is called the Son because he dwelled in the flesh and was conceived by his power. God was a spirit (John 4:24) and the Holy Ghost was God’s influence and power, not a person. This shows that the early doctrine of the church about the nature of God was different than what it is now. Note the Holy Ghost is referred to in the Book of Mormon as an “it.”

    Mosiah 15:

    1 And now Abinadi said unto them: I would that ye should understand that God himself shall come down among the children of men, and shall redeem his people.
    2 And because he dwelleth in flesh he shall be called the Son of God, and having subjected the flesh to the will of the Father, being the Father and the Son—
    3 The Father, because he was conceived by the power of God; and the Son, because of the flesh; thus becoming the Father and Son—
    4 And they are one God, yea, the very Eternal Father of heaven and of earth.

  4. Robert Boylan

    On Mosiah 15:1-4, I tend to agree with Ben McGuire that “father” and “son” refer to Jesus alone, not God the Father and God the Son, with “father” referring to Christ’s divinity, and “son” referring to his mortality, so I would have to disagree with your interpretation of that particular passage.

    Furthermore, I can’t help but see that you are reading into these passages a theology not too disimilar to that of Jehovah’s Witnesses

  5. Robert Boylan

    One final thing–do ignore my JW comment. I misread your statements (you seem to be arguing that such a view was part and parcel of early LDS theology). Sorry for that 🙂

  6. Thanh Schreyer

    I like your style, the fact that your site is a little bit different makes it so interesting, I get fed up of seeing same-old-same-old all of the time. I’ve just stumbled this page for you 😀

  7. Robert Boylan

    Blake: Fair enough, but at least we can agree that the Book of Mormon does *not* teach Modalism, right? 🙂 Methinks you will agree with me when I say that Charles, Vogel, Bodine and Rhodes, et al., rely on eisegesis to make such a case.

    I think you might be right, however, in light of the statement of the will of the Son being swallowed up by the Father. I will have to look at that pericope again, though I think Ben might be onto something in his exegesis of the passage. With his permission, I could pass it onto you, if you want (don’t want this thread to go of topic even more than it has now . . .)


    Robert Boylan
    Tralee, Ireland.

  8. Blake

    Robert: Thanks for pointing out Ben’s exegesis. I agree that Mosiah 15’s primary focus in the dual nature of Christ — he is both human and divine in the same nature because of his relation to the Father. We agree that it doesn’t teach modalism.

  9. onika

    Ben is wrong. Father does Not translate to immortal god. Abinadi says God is called the Father because he is conceived by the power of God, which is himself. God created for himself a body in the form of Jesus and that is why he is called the Father.

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