According to Roger Olson, the reaction of many conservative evangelicals to open theism “was fueled by misinformation, misrepresentation and down right demagoguery.” He’s particularly irked that these critics routinely associated open theism with process theology and accused them doing things of limiting God, diminishing God’s glory, and undermining the atonement. He contends that open theism does none of these things, and that these conservative evangelical critics should have known better. And, this response demonstrates that “many conservative evangelicals are not really evangelicals in the post-fundamentalist, post-WW2 sense but really fundamentalists (which might be unfair to many fundamentalists!).”
Instead, Olson suggests that open theism should be viewed as “a legitimate evangelical option,” and states that he’s willing to stand alongside his open theist friends “over against the neo-fundamentalists who seem to be largely controlling the evangelical establishment today.”
On the one hand, I think Olson’s right. I thought at the time that many of the criticisms being leveled against open theism were not entirely fair. The argument that open theism is basically process theology in disguise was particularly pernicious – tarring open theism with a whole raft of positions that they all explicitly denied. (I don’t think they helped their case, though, by spending as much time as they did discussing process theology. Of course, their point was to demonstrate that they were not process theologians. But, the unintended consequence was to demonstrate to everyone that they were quite familiar with process theology. It was a short step from there to the implication that they were in fact influenced by process theology.)
On the other hand, though, we should recognize that the rhetoric flew strongly in both directions. As with many arguments, the intense heat of the debate led proponents of both positions to be less than fair to the opposite side. I well remember the frustration of reading and listening to the open theists’ blatant caricatures of classical theism, neglecting the best that this tradition has to offer, and focusing instead on its weakest aspects. (Note well, when critiquing another position, do not pit your strongest arguments against their weakest ones. If that’s the only way you can win, give up now.) So, focusing only on the missteps of the evangelical “establishment” is not entirely fair either.
I’d also be curious to hear more from Olson on what he thinks qualifies as real “evangelicalism” vs. “neo-fundamentalism.” Presumably he wouldn’t object to someone engaging in heated theological discourse (he does it all the time). And, I don’t think rhetorical “fairness” is really the issue, despite his focus on that problem in this essay, since we see those problems on both sides. I think it actually has more to do with drawing “boundaries.” At the end of his essay, he states that he sees both open theists and 5-point Calvinists as both being “within the evangelical movement” (despite the fact that he really does not like 5-point Calvinism). His real problem with these conservative evangelical critics, then, is their attempt to exclude, to draw the boundaries of evangelicalism such that open theists are declared nonevangelical. And, I think this boundary-drawing is Olson’s real concern; that’s what harkens back to the separatism of the fundamentalists.
But, of course, if we’re not supposed to be drawing boundaries, how does Olson explain his claim that these critics are “not really evangelicals”? That sounds a lot like a boundary to me. Maybe Olson has some fundamentalist leanings of his own.
Nick Norelli has posted a really nice review of Tom McCall’s new book Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism?: Philosophical and Systematic Theologians on the Metaphysics of Trinitarian Theology. This is one that I’m hoping to read myself (some day). Although he’s appreciative overall, he does push back on Tom’s argument that a strong view of eternal functional subordination (i.e. the Son is functional subordinate in all possible times and all possible worlds) entails a denial of the homoousios because it means that the Son necessarily and essentially has a property that the Father does not have.
Tom’s argument basically works like this (as I understand it from a paper he presented at ETS some time back). Everyone in this particular debate agrees that the Son is functionally subordinate the Father in the incarnation. The question is whether he was so before the incarnation. Tom is willing to concede that this might be so as long as it was conceivably possible for him to not be functionally subordinate (i.e. even if the functional subordination is eternal, it must still be voluntary). If, he argues, it is not even conceivably possible that the Son could have chosen not to be functionally subordinate (i.e., it is essentially necessary in all times and possible worlds), then it is not a voluntary subordination. Instead, it is a necessary and essential attribute of the Son to be subordinate to the Father. And, Tom concludes, since this is clearly not an essential and necessary attribute of the Father’s, then the Son and Father are not homoousios.
Since many of you have recently spent some time in the Greek Fathers wrestling with precisely these kinds of questions, I’m curious as to how you would respond to this argument. Would you agree with Tom that there must be an essential egalitarianism (at least conceptually) within the Trinity so that the Son’s subordination is eternally voluntary, or would you contend that the Son can be necessarily subordinate to the Father while still remaining homoousios with the Father? Or, are you so confused by my explanation that you have no idea what to think?