The God of Straw
By Brandon Brown
A friend recently mentioned that the Gospel should have hope and the Christian life should be marked by love. I agree with that, especially considering Jesus stating that the two greatest commandments are to love God with everything and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The context of our neighbors turns out to be the entirety of humanity. Paul is much more clear in the role of love in Christian life and ethics in Romans.
Romans 13:8–10 (NRSV) Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
In Wesleyan theology, God is sovereign in love, as the core of Wesley's theological language is love. This is in contrast to the reformed theology view of God as sovereign in totality. In the former, God interacts in relationship based on love with creation, in the latter God controls creation and demands obedience to show the glory of God.
This long introduction sets us up to discuss an article in issue two of The Remnant from the Holiness Partnership. The article in question is entitled "puny god" and it is an attempt to reject open theism. Much like the bookend articles in the inaugural issue, this article contains many straw man arguments and misrepresentations of the view being critiqued. I believe the author knows better, but there is a push to dismiss orthodox beliefs which run contrary to the gatekeeping impulse of the Holiness Partnership.
I will seek to explain the problems with this article and give answers from an open and relational theological position. I think it best to start at the beginning and the claim by Dr Hopkins that "[h]aving a true and correct image of God as revealed in scripture matters; anything less is idolatry." This is an interesting statement because, unlike most reformed theology, Wesleyan-Holiness theology does not insist upon right thinking, which is the claim about God in this article. We accept that other orthodox Christians may see God differently than we do, or at least emphasize different aspects of God than we do. I do not dispute that a correct image of God is important, because getting that wrong can impact or theological and practical decisions. The article in question is a perfect example of how a distorted view of God can lead to bad theology. Somehow, it never gets around to explaining that Jesus is the perfect image of God through the incarnation. God is never not like Jesus and Jesus is relational.
It gets worse though. In his zeal to paint God as a powerfully sovereign ruler, Dr. Hopkins calls God the "Potentate." Of all the words one could use for the idea of an in control God ruling in sovereignty, potentate seems the least likely to convey a God who has any concern for creation. The definition of potentate is a ruler or monarch, "especially an autocratic one." Maybe Dr. Hopkins does not know that definition of potentate or the image of human rulers who control in capricious and arbitrary ways that potentate conjures. Honestly, the idea of God as potentate is an image of a tiny and powerless God. Autocratic rulers rarely have the love of their subjects in mind, even less their needs and concerns.
On the way to a straw man's view of open theism, Dr Hopkins detours with an interesting proof text argument against philosophical approached to theology. He quotes from Mildred Bangs Wynkoop’s excellent Foundations of Wesleyan-Arminian Theology. The article uses this passage from Wynkoop’s book in which she is explaining how theology is often on process and when confronted with external thought often works through how to address that. The article quotes Wynkoop in this way, "Today Christian doctrine is confronted by existentialism and 'process' philosophy." By quoting only this sentence after an explanation quoted from Wynkoop of philosophical ideas, it would seem that Wynkoop is worrying about or warning as Dr Hopkins implies that this is a danger. If we look at the sentence in context, we find Wynkoop is saying that theology must find ways to philosophically address these ideas. "Today Christian doctrine is confronted by existentialism and “process” philosophy. Christian theology seeks a philosophical foundation adequate to its truth and congenial to the traditional way of thinking." (Wynkoop loc 214) To expand the context of Wynkoop's theology itself, we need only look to her excellent Theology of Love which expands on Wesleyan-Arminian Theology by showing that Wesley worked from a core understanding of love. Wynkoop did not reject process thought, in fact, she felt that it addresses many metaphysical issues very biblically. "It is my considered opinion that, though the metaphysical foundation of process thought is not the only solution to theological problems, its insights are inescapable in a biblical theology." (Love loc 167) Wynkoop is not warning us about philosophical thought in theology, rather she is showing us a way to work within it in a thoroughly Wesleyan-Holiness framework.
Then we get to a straw man being placed up to shore up our author's premise. "God is a celestial friend." Hogwash is the best family friendly word I can think of here. This is not the God of open theism. The God of open theism is an expansively personal God who is always creating and in cooperation with creation. Dr. Hopkins calls this God puny, but in reality, this God is overwhelming in love and power, but not the potentate kind of power. Dr. Hopkins also claims that there is no scriptural basis for thinking that our actions and thoughts impact God. That seems like an infinitely small god; one who is not moved by the actions of the creation. God actively changes God's mind in the Hebrew scriptures. There are even claims that God repents of creating humans, God often changes trajectory based upon the actions of human beings. I wonder what Dr. Hopkins thinks of prayer? The open theist believes that prayer can move God, but this article, at least, seems to say that God has an ineffable plan that is not impacted one iota by our actions, cooperation, or resistance. That sounds like Calvin's God and not the God Wesley preached.
Open theism does hold that God can know all that can be known; this is more than human beings can know. But that knowledge is impacted by the free decisions of creation. It is helpful to note that open theists are diverse on how they see this and to what extent God's future knowledge is possible. Some see the way God sees as similar to the Multiverse in the Marvel Universe, which is why I'm surprised Dr. Hopkins missed that in caricature of open theism. Wesleyan theology is an open theology because we believe that human cooperation is necessary in terms of response and partnership; this is a core of Wesleyan soteriology in fact.
When I think on the God that is presented as Potentate, I think on how a Potentate interacts with those under that potentate's rule. Potentates do not choose to live among those they rule. They do not walk amongst the marginal and outcast of their society. They certainly do not allow themselves to be crucified upon a cross. Potenates avoid the messiness of those they rule and sit away and above the morass they survey. This is not the picture of our relational, incarnate, and personal God. Maybe the idea of God as Potentate is attarctive and seductive to those who wish to excercise control.
The more ideas come out of the Holiness Partnership in their magazine and public messages, the more it seems they desire to be gatekeepers of the theology and doctrines of the Church of the Nazarene. It is also seems they may actually want to be Calvin-Holiness people judging by the arguments being made and this latest view of a small and controlling god as potentate.
Dr. Douglas Hopkins. "puny god." The Remant. Issue Two, April 2022
Wynkoop, Mildred Bangs. A Theology of Love: The Dynamic of Wesleyanism, Second Edition . Nazarene Publishing House. Kindle Edition.
Wynkoop, Mildred Bangs. Foundations of Wesleyan-Arminian Theology.