The most recent episode of “Unbelievable” featured a debate between open theist John Sanders and Calvinist James White. All in all it was a good exchange, although White tended to offer potted criticisms of open theism and I found Sanders had an effective reply to many of his points. All in all a very worthwhile primer to the open theist debate.
The Low Blows
Both debaters occasionally retreated to rhetorical debating strategy. For example, at one point Sanders raised an important point when he asserted that God’s original prophecy of the destruction of Tyre (Ezek 26) was not fulfilled as originally uttered, and so God revised it in Ezek. 29:17-20. In his reply, White observed that usually he hears this passage being mentioned by atheists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Needless to say, Sanders was not happy that White opted to lead with “guilt by association” rather than a direct treatment of the text and its implications for divine foreknowledge.
As for Sanders, he took his rhetorical indulgence when it came to meticulous providence and evil. As he sees it, Calvinists believe God “wants” women raped and he “wants” children sexually abused and he “wants” murder and mayhem. Sanders then observed that he shares the sentiment of John Wesley: “if that’s love, it makes my blood run cold.”
I have two points in response to Sanders here. First, Sanders is a very intelligent theologian, so he surely knows that this is a misrepresentation of the views of Calvinists. Calvinists believe in a double decree which includes both that which God wishes to occur and that which God wills to occur. God does not wish any evil to occur: he does not “want” any rape to occur. Nonetheless, God does will that evils occur. As a result, if Sanders wants to launch a viable objection at this point, he wouldn’t collapse the two wills and play off the ambiguity. Rather, he would challenge the coherence of two wills.
Second, White could have turned this back on Sanders by pointing out that on Sanders’ view God could have prevented the rape (or whatever other evil) at any moment, but instead, God stood by watching the horror unfold in the name of protecting the perpetrator’s free will. And this sets up Sanders for an ironic rejoinder: “If that’s love, it makes my blood run cold.”
(I suspect the lesson here is that no theology emerges from the problem of evil unscathed.)
By the way, White was very good when it came to the pastoral benefits of a theology of meticulous providence and evil as he emphasized that his theology was forged in the fires of a hospital chaplaincy: this ain’t just ivory tower stuff.
Why John Sanders won this debate
Thus far my assessment is that the episode featured a good exchange between two well matched opponents with the occasional dalliance into rhetorical debating strategy. So you might reasonably conclude that the debate was a draw. So why do I believe that Sanders won this debate?
Remember that the question under debate is this: “Is Open Theism a heresy?” White was allegedly arguing that it is, while Sanders was arguing that it isn’t.
To make his case, Sanders effectively located open theism within the wider Christian tradition as a minority position in the history of the church. And he supplemented this picture with a credible interpretation of several biblical passages in support of open theism while offering counter-interpretations to several “problem passages” like Isaiah 40-48 and Jesus’ prophecy of Judas’ downfall.
This left the burden of proof on James White to define “heresy”, defend his chosen definition, and then demonstrate how open theism satisfies that chosen definition. But he didn’t even try to do that. He offered no formal definition of heresy. Instead, his approach to heresy seemed to parallel Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of “obscenity”: “I know it when I see it.” But that’s not good enough for a debate.
Sadly, conservative Christians frequently throw around the term “heresy” as some kind of trump card of strong censure on positions they disagree with. For example, I recently spoke at a church conference about the topic of homosexuality and the church. One pastor on the panel described the position of gay affirming Christians as “heresy”. But he offered no definition of heresy to justify this assertion.
As a theologian of considerable learning, James White should know that he can’t just throw around terms like “heresy” without justifying them. The most he did in this debate was to claim that the Bible teaches a Calvinist theology.
But there were two problems with that position. The first is that Sanders provided evidence that the Bible underdetermines (and thus does not teach) a Calvinist theology. Second, even if White is correct, it doesn’t follow that open theism is heresy. (For example, one could argue that the Bible establishes the norm of believer’s baptism. It doesn’t follow that pedobaptism is heresy.) So even if White had established that the Bible teaches Calvinism, he still would not have met his burden of proof.
In sum, while James White offered some grounds to believe open theism is false, he utterly failed to establish that it is heresy. And for that reason, John Sanders wins this debate.
If you’re interested in further reflection on the topic of heresy, I highly recommend Dale Tuggy’s podcast episode “Heretic! Four Approaches to Dropping H-Bombs“.