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Is God all-knowing, or is His knowledge limited? James Rissler (PhD Notre Dame) believes that God’s knowledge is limited (open theism), yet he rejects the idea that God risks or fails in His purpose(s) for humanity. Instead, he argues that God’s purpose is to offer the gift of salvation, not to save all of humanity in response to their free choice. Thus, Rissler believes God succeeds in His goal of offering salvation, and never fails. In offering this gift to humans who freely choose, God hopes for the salvation of the world due to His limited knowledge. Below, I’ve included a summary of Rissler’s article “Open Theism: Does God Risk or Hope,” followed by my response.
Rissler, James D. “Open Theism: Does God Risk or Hope?” Religious Studies, Vol. 42, No. 1 (2006): 63-74.
Open theists generally understand God’s relation to the world as one of limited knowledge, not absolute knowledge. They believe that God is not meticulously sovereign, but generally sovereign, meaning that He seeks to achieve overall goals while allowing that the path to the goal is uncertain. Rissler’s purpose in this paper is to offer a more radical rejection of any eschatological goal towards which God works, but that is more akin to the traditional theistic emphasis on the success of a perfect being’s projects. Rissler refers to his view as the “hopeful” view. Rissler is modifying open theism.
Open theists believe God created the world for the purpose of allowing humans to freely enter into loving personal relationships with Him. God wants a relationship of personal love and grants freedom for this purpose. Rissler, however, believes there are two alternatives to God’s purpose in creation: 1) The hopeful view: God hopes that we will take advantage of the opportunity He has given us to love Him; and 2) The standard view: God aims to achieve a certain providential goal for creation where His goal is related to our salvation. In order to achieve this goal, God occasionally intervenes in the world in ways which encourage us to freely choose to love Him.
If God’s goal is for humans to freely love Him, then the actions He takes are taken with the intent to further this goal. The reality, however, is that not all humans freely choose to love God. Some freely choose to reject Him, which must mean that God is not always successful in reaching His goal. Since God receiving the love of humans is contingent upon the free choice of humans, God cannot be assured of success. He cannot guarantee that even one person will freely love Him. He must risk by creating. Regardless how much God intervenes in His creation, the free agents (humans) retain the power to do otherwise; so, there is always a fundamental element of unpredictability inherent in free action. Thus, no matter how able God is in increasing the odds of His success, so long as His goals depend on our free choices, whether or not God succeeds is ultimately up to us. The crucial point is that if God’s project is to ensure that a certain proportion of persons freely love Him, then God risks failure. Even if God intervenes constantly, His intervention may encourage some to love Him while discouraging others. Rissler’s point is that there is a better way to understand God’s relationship to the world that counters the concerns that God risks failure and that He diminishes the chances that certain persons will freely love Him. He calls this approach the hopeful view.
The hopeful view assumes that God rarely intervenes in His creation. Even though God loves us, He rarely enters into the created order, having given it over to our care. God’s purpose in creating was to present us with the gift of the opportunity to freely enter into loving relationships with Him. He has extended to us an invitation and hopes that we will accept it.
If the hopeful view is correct, then God does not risk the failure of His project in creating, and He generally does not intervene in ways that make it more difficult for some to freely accept His invitation. We owe God our admiration and thanks for creating the world in such a way as to offer us this gift. If all that is required on the human side is acceptance of God’s gift, then responsibility for failing to enter into this relationship with God falls entirely on human shoulders, unless God internes in ways that makes it less likely for our free response of love towards Him.
If we emphasize the concepts of gift, opportunity, invitation, and hope, then there is a fundamental sense where God’s project is successful regardless of the free actions of humans. The risk to God is not that He might not achieve a goal, but that His creatures might disappoint Him by freely rejecting His gift. Thus, if the hopeful view is correct, God is always successful since His goal is the offer of salvation to free agents, not their salvation. The acceptance of these free agents of His gift simply reveals how well-pleased or disappointed God will be with His creation. In other words, God risks disappointment, but He does not risk failure.
In response to strong providence views concerning God, the hopeful view advocates that due to human freedom, God neither ensures the salvation of individuals nor the damnation of individuals. The responsibility for salvation rests with humanity. God hopes for the salvation of the world, but does not ensure it. In strong providence views, God does not hope at all, since He knows who will reject His salvation and who will accept His salvation. In the hopeful view, we partner with God in becoming more faithful to His will, and in making this world one which reflects His respect for us in our mutual respect for all persons. Even though the response to God’s call and God’s project is unknown even to God, we may trust that He has reason to hope that many will respond appropriately to His invitation. We must work to fulfill that hope. Thus, the hopeful view warrants further consideration.
First, the lack of exegetical argumentation in favor of open theism or Rissler’s hopeful view is telling. Rissler presents no Scripture in his argumentation. This reality begs the question if his hopeful view is able to be proven from Scripture.
Second, Rissler rightfully sees the standard view of open theism as lacking due to its affirmation of God risking and failing. His critique is correct, but his answer is equally as troublesome. The Scriptures never argue that God fails or risks, or even hopes (as described by Rissler). God is omniscient (Isaiah 46:8-13; Psalms 139:2-7). If God is all knowing, He cannot risk, fail, or hope.
Third, the Scriptures do not argue that God’s goal for the creation of humans is offering the gift, opportunity, invitation, and hope of salvation to us. On the contrary, God’s purpose for humanity is that He will glorify Himself by being the God of His people (Deut. 26:17-19; Isaiah 46:8-13; Heb. 8:10; Rev. 21:3). Furthermore, He will glorify Himself in the destruction of the wicked (Rom. 9:22-23; Rev. 19:1-8). The list can continue on. The point is that Rissler does not prove His understanding of the purposes of God from Scripture. There is much Scripture that discusses the purposes of God; yet, Rissler interacts with none of them.
Fourth, philosophy is only as good as its relation to special revelation and its agreement with special revelation. Amazingly, when one philosophizes about God, one would think this philosophizing would agree with what God has revealed about Himself. After all, man (who is sinful and finite) cannot reason himself to God (who is holy and infinite) apart from God’s self-revelation. In other words, if left to ourselves, humanity would never know God in any real sense. Since He has revealed Himself, we have access to God, and can know Him through His revelation. Therefore, I am not interested in what Rissler thinks about God. I am interested in what God has revealed about Himself. Thus, I am not interested in studying anthropology: in this case, the study of human philosophizing about God. I am only interested in understanding what God has revealed about Himself. Since Rissler did not use Scripture to prove his argument or interact with Scripture that goes against his argument, he did not prove his thesis that the hopeful view deserves further consideration.